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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Shakespeare, Italian-Style

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Countless plays, operas and movies have been based on the works of the great Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), varying from word-for-word adaptations to loose borrowing of plot or characters. Among those who owe a debt to Shakespeare is Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), whose I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and Montagues) is based on the Bard’s immortal tale of love and death, Romeo and Juliet (1595), albeit several times removed. The libretto by Felice Romani that Bellini used was a reworking of Shakespeare’s legendary tale as first intended for use as Giulietta e Romeo by the composer Nicola Vaccai; and in doing so, Romani drew upon the 1818 play Giulietta e Romeo by Luigi Scevola!

By age 28, Bellini had composed six operas with middling success and had yet to truly find his voice. His last effort, Zaira, composed for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale in Parma and premiering there on May 16, 1829, was a notable failure. Feeling that this was an unjust fate, Bellini reworked several of the themes he used for Zaira and wove them into his next opera, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, which premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on March 11, 1830. It was his first major success, and as Bellini wrote soon thereafter, “Zaira, hissed in Parma, was avenged by I Capuleti!”

Bellini’s version of Romeo and Juliet emphasizes its poignancy and is focused squarely upon the central characters. He chose to cast Romeo for a female (mezzo-soprano) to further enhance the youth and vulnerability of the doomed lovers. Very little remains in common with Shakespeare’s version, however: I Capuleti e I Montecchi retains only the protagonists’ names, the faked death and the debacle of missed messages. Romeo and Juliet, in fact, begin the opera already in love.

Though Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi was an initial success, it soon faded from opera houses, in part because Bellini had indeed found his voice and quickly produced other works, including his trio of unquestioned masterpieces: La Sonnambula (1831), Norma (1831) and I Puritani (1835). The latter was staged just eight months before Bellini’s unfortunate, early demise. Bellini’s abilities and talents were undeniable, earning him the admiration of even the most “revolutionary” of his contemporaries—Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner (they may have thought Bellini to be hopelessly old-fashioned, but they could not deny the appeal of the rich melodies he created). Bellini’s characteristically flowing and finely sculpted vocal lines—as evinced in his works from I Capuleti e I Montecchi on—represent the very epitome of the bel canto ideal.

The Florentine Opera Company of Milwaukee brings Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi to the stage of Uihlein Hall. The production, conducted by Joseph Rescigno and directed by Bernard Uzan, features soprano Georgia Jarman as Giulietta, mezzo-soprano Marianna Kulikova as Romeo, Kurt Link as Lorenzo, Jamie Offenbach as Capellio and Scott Piper as Tebaldo. I Capuleti e I Montecchi takes place April 25, 26 and 27 at Uihlein Hall.

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