I Capuleti e I Montecchi, Buxton Opera Festival, July 2016

After Bellini’s unexpected failure with his 1829 opera Zaira, based on Voltaire’s tragedy from a century earlier, the following year saw a new opportunity with an opera for the 1830 Carnival season in Venice. Unfortunately he had but a month and a half to prepare it, so his librettist Felice Romani rewrote an earlier text for another composer, and Bellini reworked some ten melodies from the unsuccessful Zaira. The subject, Romeo and Juliet is based on an 1818 Italian play, which in turn is based on sixteenth century Italian writings that fed through to Shakespeare’s play.

The Capuleti surprised by the Montecchi, all images BuxtonFestival/ Robert Workman

Capuleti surprised by the Montecchi, all images BuxtonFestival/ Robert Workman

There are just five principals in the Bellini opera: Romeo, Giulietta, her father Capellio (Capulet), his chaplain Lorenzo (Friar Lawrence), and Tebaldo, the chosen husband for Capellio’s daughter. Its setting is more warlike than the Shakespeare, with the Montecchi as Ghibellines against the Capuleti as Guelphs, and when the action starts Romeo has already killed Giulietta’s brother in battle. This production by Harry Fehr shows his coffin centre stage at the start, a framing device that sees Giulietta’s coffin in the same position at the start of the final part. Designs by Yannis Thavoris emphasise the military aspects with barbed wire defences, along with guns and uniforms for the Capulets including their chaplain, all very suitably lit by Simon Corder.

Romeo (disguised as a Capulet) and Giulietta

Romeo (disguised as a Capulet) and Giulietta

This simple setting provided a fine background for the singers, and each of the three main protagonists showed in their own way marvellous youthful passion. Stephanie Marshall was superb in the trouser role of Romeo, her slim figure moving like a young man, her voice exhibiting passion and fine masculine anger when, disguised as the Montecchi envoy, his message of peace is rejected. As his beloved Giulietta, Sarah-Jane Brandon showed tenderness and powerful coloratura, delivering fine bel canto singing in her duets with Romeo and a lovely Deh! padre mio as she begs her intransigent father’s forgiveness before leaving him forever for the sleeping death planned by Lorenzo.

Final scene before Capellio and his men enter

Final scene before Capellio and his men enter

Quite different, but wonderfully effective was the forceful passion of Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes whose O di Capellio, generosi amici helped propel a defiant start as the Capuleti prepare to defend themselves against wicked adversaries, though not unfortunately against true love. As Lorenzo, Julien Tovey sang with strength and firmness, well reflected in his body language, and as Capellio himself, Jonathan Best portrayed a man whose smugness becomes fury, and in this production delivers a shocker at the end.

Fine singing by the chorus, with the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the superb baton of Justin Doyle fully bringing out the lyrical passion of Bellini’s music.

With the previous night’s Leonore, this is a second hit for Buxton with their two splendid new opera stagings this year, and performances of the Bellini continue on various dates until July 23 — for details click here.

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