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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Opera Review: No Shakespeare Allowed

Bel Canto at Caramoor presents I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi retells the story of Romeo and Juliet
but it's not based on the Shakespeare play.
Saturday evening at Caramoor afforded New York area opera lovers the chance to hear the Vincenzo Bellini rarity I Capuleti e i Montecchi ("The Capulets and the Montagues") in a concert performance featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke's. This version of the story of two star-cross'd lovers was a tremendous early success from Bellini but like many bel canto works, fell out of fashion.

Closer examination of this non-Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet reveals that it contains some of Bellini's most compelling music, although much of the score was cannibalized from his earlier flop Zaira. I Capuleti brims with strong choral passages for the feuding houses and chromatic writing that anticipates Tristan and the most romantic passages of Die Walküre. (Richard Wagner, never above borrowing a melodic idea from a quality source, conducted this opera on many occasions in his early career.)

The libretto ignores the Shakespeare play based on this story, using as its source Matteo Bandello's version of a story by Luigi di Porto--which also inspired the British playwright. In this version, the two noble houses are on opposite sides of the Renaissance conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibilines. Romeo woos Giulietta by pretending to be an ambassador from the Montecchi (Montagues.) Familiar figures like Old Montague, the Nurse, and Mercutio are not present.

This stripped-down story was ideal in Caramoor's Venetian Theater, where operas are presented in a simple concert staging with minimal sets (a few black chairs) against the faux-baroque arches of this outdoor facility. The weather cooperated too, with the heat and storms of this summer giving way to ideal concert conditions.

Since Bellini had the singer Giuditta Grisi available for the opera's 1830 premiere, the role of Romeo was written for a mezzo-soprano. Kate Aldrich cut a dashing figure in a glitter top and leggings as the headstrong protagonist. However, her voice lacked power and volume, and was drowned out by the orchestra at big climactic moments.

Elise Gutíerrez has an instrument of extraordinary potential. She unleashed a flood of lovely cantabile singing in the soft passages of Oh! quante volte', her first act aria. While her limpid soprano was admirably suited to the cavatina (the slow passage that is the first half of a bel canto-style aria, she ran into trouble in the fast cabaletta passages that are written to allow singers to show their virtuosity. When rising above the stave, Ms. Gutíerrez' voice seemed to compress and fold on itself, resulting in an ungainly, piercing note at the end of Morte io non temo, il sai.

Tenor Leonardo Capelbo was a strong, cocky presence as Tebaldo (Tybalt) with a pleasing, if smallish tenor. Bass-baritone Jeffrey Beruan was more impressive as Capellio (Old Capulet) the proud leader of his house and the opera's main antagonist. Benjamin Harris provided fine support as Lorenzo (Shakespeare's Friar Laurence), here relegated to an advisory position in a possible effort to please strict Italian censors. Will Crutchfield conducted a taut performance of the score, and the choral singing is to be commended.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.