Magical I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini) the tenth production by Rhona Fraser’s Opera in Days Bay

I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
Opera in a Days Bay Garden (But now in the house)
Produced by Rhona Fraser
Musical director and piano: Rosemary Barnes; Hayden Sinclair – clarinet; Greg Hill – horn

Cast: Barry Mora – Capellio, Bianca Andrew – Romeo, Katherine McIndoe – Giulietto, Filipe Manu – Tebaldo, William King – Lorenzo

Canna House, Moana Road, Days Bay

Saturday 27 August, 7:30 pm

This production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, like the productions of several of the operas done by Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay company, was probably the New Zealand premiere. Though there may have been performances by minor opera groups over recent years, I’m sure no recent professional production would have escaped me. (but see more in the Appendix below)

One of the problems with this assumed Shakespeare-modelled piece has been the tendency among English-speaking people to scorn any treatment of their great dramatist’s works by foreigners who don’t understand the essential character of Shakespeare’s plays. They forget that Shakespeare invented almost none of his plots, but drew them from many sources, as did almost everyone then, and would still do today if it weren’t for the literary impediments and excesses of the Law of Intellectual Property. Shakespeare’s main sources for the plays were Holinshed’s Chronicles of British history, classical historians like Plutarch and a variety of recent plays, poems and novelle from France and Italy. The latter creations account for Romeo and Juliet.

That is not to denigrate the extraordinary genius of Shakespeare who clothed them in rich and marvelous language, fully developed charcterisations, vivid dramatic situations, wit, irony, pathos and delight in the sheer virtuosity of his imagination, that turned dry raw material into the richest and most amazing literary creations.

Medieval origins of the story
The story, that no doubt had its origins in anonymous oral myth in the earlier Middle Ages, took written form from the 14th century, through Boccaccio, Bandello and others. Bellini’s librettist, Romani, had originally written his libretto (Giulietta e Romeo) for Nicola Vaccai in 1825, the story adapted from an earlier libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa for a 1796 opera by Zingarelli. (There is the curious story that certain singers, Malibran and Pasta inter alia, demanded the Vaccai version of the last act instead of Bellini’s).

These Italian librettists were probably using the Italian sources, as Shakespeare did not begin to be translated into other languages till around 1800. One of the first to translate Shakespeare into Italian, starting from 1811 was Michele Leoni and his translation of Romeo and Juliet was published in 1814. Romani could have known it.

So here’s a slender connection with Shakespeare. Michele Leoni’s translation and a separate Italian play by Scevolo, of 1816; both appeared before 1825 when Romani wrote his libretto for Vaccai. But the fact that there’s almost no trace of the Shakespearean story or language in Bellini, makes Shakespeare an unlikely source.

That is a long way of saying that Bellini’s librettist, Romani, had a much greater range of Romeo and Juliet stories to draw on than Shakespeare had. English literature need not feel demeaned by any sort of corruption of the great Shakespeare’s work in the Bellini account of the story.

Guelfs and Ghibellines; Campbells and MacDonalds
The other historical element in the story is the allegiances of the two families to actual long-standing factional warfare that had blighted Italy for centuries, between Guelfs and Ghibellines (the Capulets adhered to the Guelfs while the Montagues were Ghibelline); the feud was driven by the overarching political and ecclesiastical forces of the late Middle Ages – supporters of the Pope (Guelfs) and supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor (Ghibellines). The various states of Italy were ruled by one faction or the other; some were happily neutral. And these warring parties continued to bring grief to many parts of the country for centuries.

To be aware of these perpetually feuding elements is to help understand the viciousness and implacability of the hatred between Capulets and Montagues. (Look up accounts of the Guelfs and Ghibellines – Wikipedia is a good place to start).

To these dualities, Rhona Fraser added another, reflecting perhaps Scottish, family antecedents: warring clans, the Campbells and MacDonalds, replaced Capulets and Montagues. Thus the Capulets wore the Campbell kilt while the Montagues wore MacDonald tartan; though in truth nothing much was made of the geographical and ethnic shift.

However, to be aware of all the historical, textual, political and factional background to the opera hugely enlarges the fascination of the work.

See the Appendix to this review for more detailed account of the story’s antecedents, both of Shakespeare and of Bellini, and other peripheral stuff.

Turning seriously to Capuleti e Montecchi
This was the tenth production from Rhona Fraser and Co’s Days Bay opera enterprise. We happy band of Wellingtonians can be grateful for these sometimes more than once a year opportunities to discover delights of out-of-the-way opera repertoire. For the first time this production was in the house at Days Bay which managed to accommodate over 100 completely filled seats in the interestingly disposed living areas.

A first-rate cast was assembled. Bianca Andrew in trouser role of Romeo and Katherine McIndoe as Giulietta, Barry Mora at the patriarch Capellio (a stark contrast to Shakespeare’s conciliatory, rather human, Capulet!). What a formidable challenge Mora presented straight away, his voice and his very presence chilling in their power and authority. Nor was his de facto lieutenant, Tebaldo, less dangerous: Filipe Manu, who was runner-up in last month’s Lexus Song Quest. His younger, polished voice captured his angry inflexibility, and we tremble at the improbability of negotiating any sort of peace, given that Romani’s Tebaldo is even more filled with insane hate as is Shakespeare’s Tybalt.

But the third party in the opening scene was William King as Lorenzo: here it’s not Friar Lawrence, but the family doctor, Dr Lorenzo, which makes his later familiarity with potions and poisons rather more credible. His role is integral in the story from the start, and his singing and acting make the situation more interesting than the unmitigated hostility, emphasis much more on revenge and the killing of each other, that Shakespeare delivers. Sort of a UN Secretary-General mediating between Assad and Netanyahu.

And we note, perhaps with a certain relief, that we only have to get five roles identified, compared with the dozen or so in Shakespeare. We have no Montagues apart from Romeo himself (and he is disguised as a Capulet/Campbell).

Behind it all was producer and founding genius Rhona Fraser, this time directly in charge of the staging generally. If one had wondered how effective an attempt at staging would be in the somewhat constrained space in the house, the arrival of the first singers left no doubt. The shape of the rooms and their furnishings proved as convincing as any theatre stage, and use of tartan meant no need for elaborate Renaissance costumes. Props were limited to a few knives or swords, and dozens of candles along with subdued lighting removed us to a different time and place.

Though Romeo’s first appearance is as an anonymous envoy suing for peace between the ancient enemies. Romeo has already killed Capulet’s son, in a situation of ‘warfare’ (in which killing is not necessarily a crime). Trouser roles have become pretty familiar over the years as more and more operas of the 18th century, and quite a few later, are uncovered (and after all, Octavian in Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos are cases). Even with her fairly high mezzo voice, Bianca adopted with total conviction her role as a strong, energetic, attractive young man which somehow made Romeo a genuinely conciliatory figure.

But Tebaldo wants blood. Romeo’s moving and placatory appeal for peace is accompanied by Hayden Sinclair’s clarinet which seems a symbol of reconciliation, but his plea is scorned. For apart from Rosemary Barnes’s piano, the only instruments used, most tellingly in their isolation, are the clarinet and Greg Hill’s French horn which then, and at points later seemed to provide the very timbre that evoked the essence of an orchestral accompaniment.

It becomes a high-tension trio, and its absolute integrity and balance through contrast, and the tension it creates made me feel that this was a performance that could support a fully staged, professional production.

The poignant sound of the horn introduced the recitative before Giulietta’s great, heart-felt aria, as she stood visible, behind a glass door, leading to the heart-breaking ‘Oh! quante volte’. Then, though the pair have met before, unlike the encounter at the Capulets’ ball in Shakespeare, Lorenzo enters with Romeo; and that leads to the beautiful love duet, the two, soprano and mezzo, both looking and sounding enchantingly beautiful, to a degree I’ve rarely experienced. It was intensified by the closeness of audience to performers.

The wedding ceremonies preparation demanded rather more space and numbers than were possible but the appearance of Romeo and Lorenzo together, with differing ideas about tactics sustained the agitated emotion: Romeo’s followers are about to storm the wedding, Romeo reveals his identity as Tebaldo’s rival for Giulietta’s hand, and it’s all on. And again, in spite of space constraints and smallness of chorus numbers, the drama was undiminished. Again Romeo failed to persuade Giulietta to escape with him.

Unlike in Shakespeare, for Romani and Bellini the couple’s great passion is not enough to overcome Giulietta’s fears and family loyalty, and finally, in Act II, Doctor Lorenzo’s remedy is the death-seeming potion to avoid being taken by force to Tybalt’s house. As her father arrives she finally takes it; there were further confrontations between Tebaldo and Romeo which end in the hearing of what is supposed to be funeral music which, for one of the very few occasions, the piano alone seemed inadequate. But it caused the two rival lovers strangely to unite in their common loss. Capellio’s implacability remains till the very end however, and there’s no coming together of the two families. The sequence of events leading to Romeo’s suicide and Giulietta’s awakening just seconds too late, were among the few elements in the tale where English play and Italian libretto came together.

The scene, beautifully lit with candles, moved slowly, demanding long-sustained stillness and almost mesmerizing effects that transfixed the audience.

I doubt whether there was anyone in the house who left with the feeling that this opera had offered an experience that was less powerful and convincing than Shakespeare’s, even though only a fraction of the words was employed. It certainly put this opera in the same class as Norma, and for me ahead of Sonnambula and Puritani.


Italian origins of the story
The Romeo and Juliet story comes from an Italian story that was handled by several writers from the 14th century onwards.

The earliest traces of the story are in Boccaccio’s mid-14th century Decameron (III,8 and X,4) and an anonymous tales of two lovers called Leonora de Bardi and Ippolito Bondelmonti. They may have been the sources for the novella by Masuccio Salernitano published in 1476, about two lovers in Siena, Mariotto and Ganozza.

But the story takes something of its Shakespearean shape with the novella of Luigi da Porto about 1524 where the lovers are named Romeo and Giulietta, respectively members of the Montecchi and Capuleti families who inhabit Verona.

The drama then moves to France where Adrien Sevin in 1542 published a tale clearly indebted to Da Porto, though given a pseudo ancient Greek setting.

Then an Italian, Gerardo Boldieri, published a poem in 1553, introducing several innovations.

And in Lucca the next year Matteo Bandello published a Novella in the style of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Bandello drew on Da Porto with borrowings from the story of Leonora and Ippolito as well as from Boldieri.

This, together with five other Bandello stories were translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in 1559, and that was adapted and translated in a long English poem by Arthur Brooke, published in 1562; and then a prose version by William Painter in 1567.

It is believed that Shakespeare knew both versions but based his play primarily on Brooke.

(Much ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night as well as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi were also based on Bandello’s stories, via Brooke).

Origins of the story in Italian opera
As for the origins of the story in Italian opera, the first opera libretto was probably by Luzzi for Marescalchi (1785, Venice), then Foppa for Zingarelli (1796, Milan), and Buonaiuti for Pietro Carlo Guglielmi (1810, London).

Felice Romani had written a libretto in 1825 called Giulietta e Romeo for composer Nicola Vaccai. (Vaccai’s career has been the subject of musicological research by Wellington’s opera and literary scholar Jeremy Commons). Romani’s libretto for Vaccai’s opera was probably based on the play of the same name by Luigi Scevola, written in 1818, and/or on Giuseppe Maria Foppa’s libretto for Zingarelli of 1796, the ultimate derivation of which was the Salernitano version from the 15th century, referred to above.

First translations into Italian
They were doubtless using the Italian sources, as Shakespeare did not begin to be translated into other languages till around 1800.
However, Michele Leoni was one of the first to translate Shakespeare into Italian, starting from 1811 and his translation of Romeo and Juliet was published in 1814, so it is very possible that Luigi Scevola’s play of 1818 drew on that translation though that is not based on any textual examination, and that Romani was influenced by it, for both Vaccai and Bellini. (An entry in Wikipedia declares simply that Romani’s libretto was based on Scevola’s play).

The first Italian libretto explicitly based on Shakespeare’s play did not appear until 1865; it was by Marco Marcello, for composer Filippo Marchetti’s Romeo e Giulietta first given in Trieste.

Bellini in New Zealand
I was curious to look at the early history of Bellini productions in 19th century New Zealand, to find Sonnambula by far the most frequently staged – seven productions between 1864 and 1881, and then none, and none in modern times, followed by Norma (and Canterbury Opera did that in 2002) and a couple of Puritanis in the tours of the 1860s and 1870s.

But no sign at all of I Capuleti, or of any of the other Bellini operas, like Il pirata, or La straniera. While we have been awakened to 18th century opera, and earlier – Monteverdi and Cavalli – Bellini has not had the same attention as Donizetti, understandable when the latter composed about seven times as many operas as Bellini.

Today, worldwide, things are not very different. Bellini is not among the most performed composers by any means as attention still dives deeper into the 17th and 18th centuries. London’s Opera magazine index of reviews for last year recorded Norma first, Puritani second and Capuleti and Sonnambula, with just one or two each. There was also one review of La straniera.

A night in Hanover 2003
It also helped that I’d seen it before, once in 2003 in Hanover, where I’d heard the conductor’s introductory talk where in which he described the Italian, non-Shakespearean origins of the story. The production was in some ways a characteristic, wilful German reinterpretation, but re-reading my account, as recorded in an article in New Zealand Opera News, it’s clear that I enjoyed and was moved by it. I found the striking black and white costumes arresting (still the fashion colour for today’s stage designers): Romeo, black and Giuletta, white, in the gorgeously sung love scene; and I remarked that the opera captured the character of the inter-tribal feud more poignantly than Shakespeare.

A friend who’d seen the 80s production at Covent Garden, full of top singers, asked me about the singers at Hanover; I couldn’t remember. As with most of my opera excursions in Germany and France I don’t look primarily for famous singers, but seek operas I don’t know, and opera houses, for their own sake. However, the two principals were Ina Kancheva (Giulietta) and Christiane Iven (Romeo).

But you need to dip into the Shakespeare for only a moment, as I was doing writing this, for any sort of one-dimensional comparison with Bellini to be ridiculous. One is totally seduced by the fluency, richness and wit of Shakespeare’s language, his imagination, the emotional and intellectual complexity of the interactions between his so subtly portrayed characters. And did you hear in the interval of a BBC Proms broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert, a marvelous discussion between the BBC presenter and a Shakespeare actor (whose name I didn’t get), on Tuesday evening (30/8), just before despatching this? Finally, he delivered a spectacular speech from Henry VI Part 3 (I think; I’ve emailed RNZ Concert for help identifying). One wept in astonishment.



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