A Rare Bird: Bellini's 'The Capulets and the Montagues'

The opera's two-act libretto is by Felice Romani, who went on to write the librettos for nearly all of Bellini's most famous works, including Norma and La Sonnambula. Unlike so many other versions of the Romeo and Juliet story, this one is not based on Shakespeare. Instead, it's rooted in several, old Italian versions of the same legend -- among them a novella dating to the 16th century.

ACT ONE opens at the palace of the Capulets, Juliet's family. They get word that their arch-enemy, Romeo of the Montagues, is sending an emissary to negotiate for peace. But there's not much chance of that, as Romeo has recently killed the Capulet's oldest son.

The Montagues' emissary arrives, and it's Romeo himself, though he's in disguise and nobody knows who he really is. He proposes that the two families end their dispute -- and says the Montagues are willing to cement the peace through the marriage of Juliet and Romeo. Capulet, Juliet's father, angrily refuses. Capulet is still looking to avenge his son, and Juliet is already engaged to Tebaldo.

In the next scene, Juliet is in her room, preparing unhappily for her wedding. She and Romeo are deeply in love, and she wants nothing to do with Tebaldo. Lorenzo, the family physician, then arrives. He feels for Juliet, and he's brought Romeo with him for a secret visit. Romeo wants Juliet to run away with him. She's torn, but won't betray her family, and turns him down.

Later, during the preparations for Juliet's wedding feast, the Montagues are preparing an assault on the Capulet palace. Romeo is already there, in disguise. But he's recognized as the envoy from the first scene, and there's a struggle as the Montague attack begins. Romeo again begs Juliet to leave with him, but she hesitates, and the two are separated in the commotion as the act ends.

As ACT TWO begins, Juliet is at home, alone. She hasn't heard how the battle turned out, and she's afraid that either her father or Romeo has been killed.

Lorenzo arrives with the good news that both men are still alive. He also convinces Juliet that there's only one way to avoid the marriage to Tebaldo, and instead wind up with Romeo. Lorenzo will give Juliet a potion that simulates death, and she'll be revived after she's "laid to rest" in the family mausoleum. Lorenzo has also arranged a meeting with Romeo, to tell him about the scheme. That way, Romeo can rescue her from the tomb and the lovers can escape together. Juliet is hesitant, but she's also desperate. So she agrees to the plan and swallows the potion.

When Capulet enters the room and announces that Juliet's marriage to Tebaldo will take place the next day, Juliet says it doesn't matter -- that she'll be dead by morning. Capulet reacts calmly. Eyeing Lorenzo suspiciously, Capulet promptly orders him arrested -- preventing Lorenzo from reaching his planned meeting with Romeo.

The scene changes to an isolated clearing outside the palace, where Romeo has confronted Tebaldo. They're about to fight a duel when a funeral procession approaches. The two men are shocked when they realize that Juliet has apparently died, though their conflict promptly resumes in a rousing duet, this time with the men arguing over which of them is suffering the more profound grief.

Romeo follows the procession to the tomb. When everyone has gone, he goes in with some friends, and persuades them to open Juliet's casket. With that done, they leave him alone. He sings a farewell to Juliet, and produces a vial of poison.

When Juliet wakes up, she tells Rome that she's finally willing to leave with him. It's too late. Romeo has already swallowed the poison. He soon dies, and Juliet collapses on his body.

Capulet arrives, followed by members of the Montague clan, and they find both Romeo and Juliet lying dead beside her coffin. Seeing this, Capulet cries out, "Who has killed them?" The others all reply, "You have, with your cruelty," and the opera ends.