Monday, 17 March 2014

I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Vincenzo Bellini
Vincenzo Bellini
Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Chelsea Opera Group, Robin Newton, Catherine Carby, Ana-Maria Labin: Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 16 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Poised and passionate concert performance of Bellini's Romeo and Juliet opera

Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is not as rare a visitor to UK opera houses as some of Chelsea Opera Group's repertoire, but the opera is still relatively unusual and a most welcome visitor. The Chelsea Opera Group was conducted by Robin Newton for a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with Catherine Carby as Romeo, Ana Maria Labin as Giulietta, Christopher Turner as Tebaldo, Graeme Braodbent as Capellio and David Soar as Lorenzo.

Bellini wrote I Capuleti e i Montecchi rather quickly in 1830 to fill a gap in the schedule at Venice's La Fenice Theatre, using a libretto by Felice Romani based on his existing libretto for Niccola Vaccai's Giulietta e Romeo. The work as popular in Bellini's day, and had occasional revivals in the 20th century (in the 1950's Giulietta Simoniato's fondness for the role of Romeo caused a number of revivals). A tendency to replace a mezzo-soprano Romeo with a tenor has thankfully disappeared, as has the 19th century habit of replacing the last scene with that of Vaccai's opera. Covent Garden first produced the opera in the 1980's in a production by Pier-Luigi Pizzi with Agnes Baltsa and Edita Gruberova, which was last revived in 2009 for Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko. Grange Park Opera have produced the work twice, and Opera North has also performed it in a production in 2008 by Orpha Phelan with Sarah Connolly and Marie Arnet.


The opera is not based on Shakespeare, but on earlier Italian sources and the compressed nature of the libretto (two acts, each of three scenes) means that much contributory detail is lost. The roles of Paris and Tybalt are compressed into a single character, Tebaldo, there is no balcony scene and the plot is set against the backdrop not of internecine family feuding, but of the civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The plot concentrates on the two lead characters, including two rapturous duets.

Romeo was sung by the Australian mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby who made a passionate and highly involved Romeo. Her opening aria, where Romeo face's the rival faction, was wonderfully defiant with Carby displaying a lovely smooth, evenly produced voice with a nice facility for the passagework. Her performance has a creamy, seductive quality which leant a special quality to her duets with Ana Maria Labin's Giulietta. In this version of the story we see Romeo mainly interacting with others. There is a wonderful scene in act two where Romeo and his rival Tebaldo (Christopher Turner) hurl insults at each other but then join together in an awkward duet of grief as they learn of Giulietta's death. Here Carby was finely partnered by Christopher Turner in a show of fireworks which turned into something more subtle. Carby's final scene was finely expressive as well as being beautifully sung. Throughout, she showed great sympathy with the bel canto style. I could have wished for a little more variety and colour in her tone, and the role of Romeo could perhaps be sung with a little more bite. But Carby was finely passionate, beautifully fluid with a lovely sense of line, and produced some highly imaginative ornamentation for the arias.

Ana-Maria Labin has one of those interesting, highly characterful French style voices which bring a degree of edge and a sharpness of timbre to bel canto. Labin took a little time to warm up, so that her lovely opening aria was a little too edgy, and lacked the relaxed poise which is idea. She brought a passionate commitment to her duets with Carby's Romeo, and the two developed a highly intense and very believable relationship. But this was a relationship played out through the music, with both Carby and Labin bringing a fine musicality to the performance. Labin's solo at the opening of act two was very fine, beautifully poised with the passagework highly flexible, and her final moments were Romeo at the end of the opera were suitably intense.

Lyric tenor Christopher Turner brought a slightly spinto-ish heft to the role of Tebaldo which with the flexibility in Turner's voice made for quite a thrilling combination in his opening aria where he vows to kill Romeo. Tebaldo isn't a large role, but in both this aria and his superb act two duet with Labin, Turner made the role count. Neither of the other soloists got an aria, but both Graeme Broadbent as Capellio and David Soar as Lorenzo were highly characterful. Broadbent brought a brilliant sense of Capellio's pig-headedness whilst Soar made Lorenzo sympathetic. Both were finely musical in the ensembles.

Under the crisp baton of Robin Newton, the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra and chorus contributed a strongly characterful performance. The score is notable for the solo moments which Bellini gives to the instruments, and we were treated so some extremely fine solo playing indeed, with finely flexible contributions from solo clarinet, cello, horn and harp. There was a certain brisk business-like sense to Newton's conducting, and I occasionally wanted the tempos in the tutti sections to relax a little, but he was extremely sympathetic to the soloists with some nicely flexible rubatos.

Chelsea Opera Group seems to have a way with Italian bel canto, and some of their most memorable evenings have been performances of this repertoire. This performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi was another for the annals, and it is a heartening indication of the state of bel canto singing that they were able to field such a fine group of soloists as Carby, Labin, Turner, Broadbent and Soar, all ably supported by conductor Robin Newton.

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