Vincenzo Bellini’s operas are not among those that are played most often in Norway. This Saturday’s concert performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Norwegian Opera in Oslo was the second ever to take place in Norway, the first being a concert performance in the Oslo Concert House back in 2001. Saturday’s performance also marked the house debut of Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova in the role of Romeo. This was originally supposed to be a full scale production, but due to technical difficulties that plan never came to fruition.

The story should be familiar to most, as it is based on the same source material as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani’s version, however, the cast is smaller (only five characters compared to the 20-odd characters in the Shakespeare), and the big love scenes in the play are nowhere to be seen in the opera, although this is largely because by the time the opera begins, Romeo and Giulietta are already in love. The opera focuses more on Romeo’s planned escape and Giulietta’s reluctance to join him.

Singing the star-cross’d lovers were the mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo and soprano Marita Sølberg as Giulietta. Romeo is one of Kasarova’s signature roles, a fact that was very apparent right from her first entrance. Even though it was only a concert performance, Kasarova’s Romeo was an actual character, freed from her music stand (which, incidentally had no music on it) and not afraid to move around onstage.

Kasarova can be a problematic singer to watch. She does some strange, almost convulsion-like movements, especially in parts with a lot of coloratura and high notes that can seriously detract from an otherwise very good performance. That said, Kasarova’s onstage mannerisms were primarily a problem in her first aria, and got better as the evening progressed, especially during the ensembles. Vocally, she was good, although her high notes sounded strained at times. She also had some late entrances, especially apparent in the duets with Marita Sølberg’s Giulietta.

Marita Sølberg, recent recipient of the Norwegian Music Critics award for her portrayal of Mimì in La bohème last season, sang Giulietta. Her beautiful voice shone over the orchestra, and her ornamentations and coloratura were very good. Sølberg managed to permeate her Giulietta with heart-wrenching sadness and melancholy, perfect for the tragic heroine.

The smaller parts of Tebaldo, Capellio and Lorenzo were sung by Diego Torre, Magne Fremmerlid, and Yngve André Søberg, respectively. Torre’s performance was mostly just loud, and was not particularly dynamic. That said his singing became rather lovely as the evening progressed. Magne Fremmerlid’s large voice and resonant bass suited the declamatory nature of Capellio, Giulietta’s father, although his tone was a little rough at times. Yngve André Søberg’s compassionate Lorenzo was also beautifully sung.

The orchestra was conducted by Antonio Fogliani, and they sounded rather at home in what must be very foreign territory for them, given the general scarcity of Bellini in Norway. There were a few moments, during the many fast runs in woodwinds and strings where the orchestra didn’t quite line up, but in general the playing was good, most notably the many woodwind solos. Bellini’s orchestral writing may not be the most exciting there is, but Fogliani’s tempi drove the action forward nicely. There were, however, some rather eccentric moments, like massive rubatos in Romeo’s first-act aria, bringing the orchestra almost to a halt before continuing in the same tempo. The chorus was good, although Bellini’s writing for chorus isn’t especially exciting.

All in all, I Capuleti e i Montecchi made for a great night at the opera, with some great singing and fine orchestral playing. The opera might not be Bellini’s greatest but it contains some truly glorious music. It’s a shame that nothing became of the production, but fingers are crossed that there will be one in the near future.