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

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woo-1519-300-sameWhile it might seem surprising, Vincenzo Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues is a true rarity: a successful opera based on the celebrated tale of Romeo and Juliet.

At first glance, you would think the story would be a natural for the opera house. There's the pair of passionate young lovers, kept apart by the pointless bickering of their colorful families; the kindly friend who comes up with an ingenious scheme for the lovers to be together; a simple mistake that leads to tragedy, heartbreak and death.
Whether it's found in the classic tragedy by Shakespeare or in the ancient legend that inspired it, the story would seem to have everything it needs to perk a composer's interest. And, true to form, it has led to lots of great concert music, including the famous Romeo and Juliet Fantast-Overture by Tchakovsky, a ballet score by Prokofiev that's a staple in the orchestral repertory and a blockbuster "Dramatic Symphony" by Berlioz.
When it comes to opera, things have turned out far differently -- though not through lack of effort. Dozens of composers have tried their hand at Romeo and Juliet operas, over a span of more than two hundred years, with a preponderance of those operas based on the classic tragedy by Shakespeare. Almost none have made the grade. Ever heard of the 1776 opera by Georg Benda, or the 1862 version by Leopold Damrosch? How about the 1916 Romeo and Juliet by John Barkworth? Probably not -- and there are plenty of other R & J obscurities where those came from.
All told, there are really only two Romeo and Juliet operas that still hold the stage today. One is the 1867 score by Charles Gounod, and the other is the drama featured here, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi -- The Capulets and the Montagues.
If Bellini's success with the story weren't rare enough, there's another element of his opera that makes it even more unusual. It's not based on Shakespeare's play. In the Italy of 1830, when Bellini wrote the opera, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was little known. The opera's libretto, by Felice Romani, is actually based on an Italian play from 1818, and on a 16th-century novella, also Italian, called Giulietta e Romeo.
Remarkably, it took Bellini only six weeks to finish The Capulets and the Montagues, though that's not quite as impressive as it might sound. Much of its music had already been composed for an earlier opera called Zaira. That one didn't fare too well -- it was actually hissed at its premiere. So Bellini promptly recycled the score to create The Capulets and the Montagues. When the new opera proved successful the composer took to calling it "Zaira's Revenge."
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story from the same theater that staged the opera's world premiere in 1830, La Fenice in Venice. The stars are soprano Jessica Pratt as Juliet, and mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi as Romeo -- one of the last major "trouser" roles ever composed, and one of the best. The production is led by conductor Omer Meir Wellber.
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