I Capuleti e i Montecchi is only inspired by Romeo and Juliet: the libretto is based on a vast Italian literary tradition dedicated to the unhappy lovers, Shakespeare being far from well known in Italy in the early 19th century. The libretto, by Felice Romani, had already been set to music by Nicola Vaccai, and as such was ready for composer Vincenzo Bellini to work on, when he was commissioned by La Fenice, in Venice, to write an opera with an absurdly short deadline (six weeks). Bellini borrowed handsomely from his latest fiasco in Milan, Zaira, and managed to almost keep the deadline, for a tremendous success at the premiere.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi
© Monika Rittershaus (2015)

The plot diverges from Shakespeare considerably: the two families’ feud is based on political reasons, and the fights between them are represented as “battles” in a “war” where Romeo is some sort of war hero (at 16?). The story of Romeo and Juliet falling in love is not part of the plot: the story starts afterwards, and the two lovers are mostly seen quarrelling and accusing each other of cruelty and whatnot. Juliet refuses to follow Romeo, torn between her love for him, the honour of her family and loyalty to her father, who is here a prominent patriarchal figure. In other words, the Shakespearian tragedy is turned into a 19th-century feuilleton. What almost survives of Shakespeare is their death: the sleeping potion, the misunderstanding, the double suicide. “Almost” because Bellini, like Gounod a few decades later, cannot resist the temptation of writing a death duet, so Juliet wakes up when Romeo is still alive, but has already drunk the poison.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi
© Monika Rittershaus (2015)

Christof Loy sets the action in modern times, the two families depicted as something like two rival gangs of criminals. The revolving set (Christian Schmidt) shows different rooms as it turns; during the overture it shows Juliet as a little girl, dressed as a bride (for her first communion maybe?), there are hints of sexual abuse by her father, and then, as the rooms revolve, we see murdered people everywhere, on the floor, on the beds, on the armchairs (a premonition of what is to follow, when Romeo’s acolytes storm the Capuleti palace, another deviation from Shakespeare). The modern setting creates some awkward situations, such as during the confrontation between Romeo and Tebaldo (Giulietta’s fiancé), who keeps singing “I’m going to kill you!” for a long time with a gun in his hand, yet doesn’t fire a shot. Other than this, the production does help narrate the story, but it doesn’t add much. Why half the male chorus was in drag for the wedding remains unexplained. Also, at the end Juliet doesn’t die, but runs away in horror, another unexplained choice.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi
© Monika Rittershaus (2015)

Fabio Biondi conducted the Philharmonia Zürich with energy, at times too much energy it seemed; it was a quite literal reading of the score, correct and precise, but not very inspired. Jana Kurucová sang Romeo with a very well projected, strong mezzo. Her voice seemed to have some issues navigating the first passaggio, but it then opened up in beautiful high notes. Rosa Feola (Giulietta) displayed a round, but silvery soprano, with easy high notes, very Italianate. She was very moving in her two big arias “O quante volte” and “Ah, non poss’io partire”, with emotional filati and interpretation. Her breathing technique seemed to be not on top form, she was catching her breath always tastefully but more often than one would have hoped.

Tebaldo, Romeo’s rival, was Omer Kobiljak, whose high, luminous tenor seem very suited to bel canto music. Two competent basses completed the cast: Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as Giulietta’s father and Brent Michael Smith as Lorenzo, Giulietta’s confidante, who helps the two unfortunate lovers.

The finale of the opera, perhaps the best musical page of this work, was very moving, with Feola most effective in the frenzy of discovering Romeo dying next to her, and Kurucová singing her last lines with what really sounded like her last breath. 

**111