Four Gentlemen and a Lady of Verona: (from left to right) Liam Moran as Lorenzo, Kate Lindsey as Romeo, Nicole Cabell as Giulietta, conductor Antony Walker, David Portillo as Tebaldo, and Jeffrey Beruan as Capellio in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]
VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): I Capuleti ed i Montecchi—Nicole Cabell (Giulietta), Kate Lindsey (Romeo), David Portillo (Tebaldo), Jeffrey Beruan (Capellio), Liam Moran (Lorenzo); Orchestra and Chorus of Washington Concert Opera; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Sunday, 28 September 2014]
It seems counterintuitive to opera lovers in the Twenty-First Century, particularly those whose native tongue is English, to suggest that any opera with Romeo and Juliet as its protagonists is not at least an illegitimate offspring of William Shakespeare. Even before the première of Shakespeare’s play in the first half of the 1590s, however, stories of the feuding Montagues and Capulets had been popular in Italian literature since the families were encountered in Purgatorio in Dante’s Divina Commedia. Like Shakespeare, Dante may have been influenced by Ovid’s recounting of the tragic love of Pyramus and Thisbe, which may also have inspired, at least in part, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Felice Romani, Bellini’s librettist for I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, as well as Il pirata, La straniera, Zaira, La sonnambula, and Norma, seemingly drew primarily upon the same Fifteenth-Century novella by Matteo Bandello that most inspired Shakespeare’s dramatic retelling of the story. A poet with unusually sure instincts for the theatre who had given a number of Italy’s most celebrated composers libretti that led to career-defining success, Romani distilled the essence of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet into an intoxicating brew that was first disseminated in 1825 by Nicola Vaccai. When Bellini’s setting of Romani’s libretto first greeted the public in 1830, the opera’s success was immediate and considerable. Romeo was entrusted to Giuditta Grisi, who, like Bellini, was doomed to die young, and Giulietta was portrayed by Maria Caterina Rosalbina Caradori-Allan, a respected singer who had previously sung the soprano part in the first British performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was Maria Malibran who initiated the custom of substituting the Tomb Scene from Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo for Bellini’s final scene, but the tradition fortunately lost its appeal as I Capuleti ed i Montecchi gradually re-emerged during the Twentieth Century. Bellini’s score combines the melodic profligacy and unapologetic sentimentality for which the composer is renowned, and it is a piece that is almost perfectly-suited to being performed in concert. Details that are lost in staged performances can be unveiled with great effectiveness in concert, but no performance can be successful without penetrating the nucleus of bel canto. This is the realm of the greatest triumph of the Washington Concert Opera forces. There were imperfections in their performance of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, but even the mistakes were rooted in a profound understanding of Bellini’s idiom. The opera does not end happily, but the evening in Lisner Auditorium could hardly have been more joyous for the lover of bel canto.
Both with Washington Concert Opera and in his engagements with other companies, conductor Antony Walker has developed a reputation as one of today’s leading champions of bel canto. This performance confirmed that the esteem in which his leadership of music by the masters of bel canto is held is fully justified. In this account of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, his conducting united expressive lyricism with taut rhythmic pacing that allowed the singers to make dramatic points without sacrificing momentum or edge-of-seat vitality. This is the sort of opera in which the basic plot elements are so familiar that no one is surprised by the tragedy, but Maestro Walker conducted as though the fates of Romeo, Juliet, and their feuding families were completely new to him. He was seconded in this by the wonderfully alert, generally polished playing of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Starting with a sprightly performance of the spiritedly tuneful Overture, the orchestra and Maestro Walker were attentive to the delicate moods of Bellini’s orchestrations. Harpist Cecile Schoon, horn player Evan Geiger, cellist Gita Ladd, and clarinetist Suzanne Gekker all gave beautiful accounts of their respective solo passages, phrasing with intuitive grace. The orchestra’s collective musicality was shared by the Washington Concert Opera Chorus. The choristers’ singing of the opening chorus, ‘Aggiorna appena,’ was vigorous, with only a few moments of uncertain ensemble disturbing the positive impression. The strength of the choral singing grew as the performance progressed, and ‘Lieta notte, avventurosa’ later in Act One was nobly done. Significantly, both chorus and orchestra were of ideal proportions for an opera first performed in 1830, and even when their execution was not quite perfect there was no doubting the integrity—or the genuine affection—of their efforts.
As Lorenzo and Capellio, basses Liam Moran and Jeffrey Beruan sang robustly. One of the few problems with performing I Capuleti ed i Montecchi in concert is conveying that it is Capellio’s waylaying of Lorenzo rather than a circumstantial misadventure that precipitates the final tragedy. Bellini’s Lorenzo does not enjoy the prominence of Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, but Mr. Moran made the most of every opportunity afforded him, dealing equally sympathetically with both Romeo and Giulietta. Mr. Beruan thundered Capellio’s implacable pronouncements imposingly, his resonant, rock-solid tone anchoring ensembles impressively. His singing in Capellio’s brief scene in Act Two, ‘Qual turbamento io provo,’ was stirring, the softening of the character’s fury in response to his daughter’s suffering reflected in the brighter colorations in the voice.
The tessitura of Bellini’s music for Tebaldo—Shakespeare’s Tybalt—is not as stratospheric as that for Elvino in La sonnambula or Arturo in I Puritani, but his cavatina and cabaletta in Act One present the tenor with formidable tests of his bel canto technique—tests that many singers fail. Young San Antonio native David Portillo brought to his performance as Tebaldo impressive bel canto credentials, including lauded assumptions of Rossini rôles and successful traversals of the vocal minefield of Donizetti’s music for Tonio in La fille du régiment. In his introductory recitative, ‘O di Capellio, generosi amici,’ it was immediately apparent that Mr. Portillo was comfortable in Tebaldo’s music. Though forced to sing his cavatina without benefit of extensive warm-up, a cruel trick repeated by Bellini with Pollione’s ‘Meco all’altar di Venere’ in Norma, Elvino’s ‘Prendi, l’anel ti dono’ in La sonnambula, and Arturo’s ‘A te, o cara’ in I Puritani, Mr. Portillo rose to the occasion thrillingly. Phrasing the melodic line of the cantabile ‘È serbato, a questo acciaro’ with organic expressivity, he handled the lingering of the vocal line in the passaggio with brio and ascended to the aria’s top B with every appearance of ease. The proliferation of Fs and Gs in the cabaletta, ‘L'amo tanto, e m'è sì cara,’ also makes an assault on the tenor’s passaggio, and Mr. Portillo triumphed, interpolating a ringing, secure top C in the cabaletta’s coda. His intelligent ornamentation of the repeats of both his cavatina and cabaletta was delightful. The strength of Mr. Portillo’s bravura technique was further revealed in his assured singing in Tebaldo’s duet with Romeo in Act Two, ‘Ella è morta, o sciagurato.’ His assertive delivery of coloratura passages in thirds with Romeo was wonderful, and the rise to top B♭ in unison at the duet’s end was an apt resolution of the passion of the moment. Mr. Portillo’s Tebaldo was a resonantly youthful rival for Romeo, not just a conventional operatic antagonist, and the tenor confirmed that he is a bel canto stylist of exceptional abilities.
Named Seattle Opera’s artist of the year in 2010, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey has been heard at the Metropolitan Opera in rôles as diverse as Mozart’s Cherubino, Siebel in Gounod’s Faust, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, and Nicklausse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. In Romeo’s introductory recitative in Act One, ‘Lieto del dolce incarco a cui mi elegge,’ Ms. Lindsey immediately captured attention with refined, dramatically vibrant singing and energetic negotiation of Bellini’s triplets. Interacting with Capellio and Tebaldo, Ms. Lindsey’s Romeo seethed with barely-contained rage that never disrupted the singer’s spinning of a long-sustained thread of bel canto silk. The larghetto cantabile cavatina ‘Se Romeo l’uccise in figlio’ traverses more than two octaves, taking Romeo from low G to top B, and Ms. Lindsey took the considerable range of the music in stride. Throughout the performance, she was very cautious in the lower register, taking head voice very low and generally avoiding chest voice even in crucial exclamations at the very bottom of the range. Ms. Lindsey gave a stirring account of ‘La tremenda ultrice spada,’ Romeo’s Allegro marziale cabaletta, the written pair of top Bs produced without strain and her embellishments of the repeat displaying winsome creativity. The great duet for Romeo and Giulietta drew from Ms. Lindsey her most impassioned singing of the evening, her top Gs shining in ‘Sì, fuggire! a noi non resta’ and her B♭ fired into the auditorium like a missile. In Act Two, the desolation with which she began ‘Deserto è il luogo’ was heartbreaking, and her account of the gorgeous ‘Deh! tu, deh! tu, bell’anima’ stopped time, the repeated Es and Fs at the top of the staff evoking Romeo’s anguish. The top A that crowned the line was stunningly voiced, and the altering anger and despair in the duet with Tebaldo were electric. Still, the dramatic pinnacle of Ms. Lindsey’s performance was Romeo’s death in the Tomb Scene. The agony of Romeo’s dying words to Giulietta could not have been more movingly depicted in a staged performance. Across two-and-a-half octaves, from a firm low G to a pitch-perfect top C, Ms. Lindsey was a stylish, credibly masculine Romeo who walked away with more hearts than Giulietta’s.
Acclaimed for her singing as Medora in WCO’s March performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro [reviewed here], soprano Nicole Cabell returned to Washington on short notice to substitute for an indisposed colleague as Giulietta. Possessing an attractive voice and an appearance to match, Ms. Cabell won considerable praise for her Giulietta in a San Francisco Opera production—soon to be available on DVD and Blu-ray—that paired her with the Romeo of Joyce DiDonato. Ms. Cabell is an intelligent singer who knows her own voice, and in this performance she consistently made decisions that brought glory to herself and to Bellini. She does not waste effort on producing gaudy interpolated high notes: rather, she focuses her considerable gifts on the proper projection of Bellini’s broad melodic strands. Her full-bodied tone and aged-mahogany timbre are virtually ideal for Giulietta’s music, and she managed to convey both girlishness and consummate artistic maturity. In Giulietta’s opening recitative, ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta,’ she emitted a series of golden tones—rising thrice to top B♭—that introduced a deeply thoughtful character. In the opera’s most famous aria, the romanza ‘Oh! quante volte, oh! quante ti chiedo,’ Ms. Cabell soared to the top B♭ and C with complete security and disarming delicacy. Most arresting, though, was the extent to which Ms. Cabell surrendered herself to the drama even in the context of a concert performance. From her first entrance, she was not singing Giulietta’s music: she was Giulietta. Her character’s shifting emotions were shown on her face, and her subtle gestures were those of a great Juliet of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the duet with Romeo in Act One, Ms. Cabell’s portrayal of Giulietta’s hesitation, her heart torn between loyalty to her father and the memory of her slain brother and her love for Romeo, was touching, and her voicing of the top C and descending series of trills was superb. She and Ms. Lindsey combined splendidly in their coloratura in thirds in ‘Ah, crudel! d’onor ragioni,’ so reminiscent of the duets for Norma and Adalgisa, and they blended both their tones and their phrasing with the naturalness of true musical soul mates. She made Giulietta’s capitulation to Romeo in ‘Vieni, ah! vieni, in me riposa’ tremendously cathartic, and her growing resolve in the Act One Finale was reflected in Ms. Cabell’s increasingly bold singing. Launching Act Two with the gorgeous lento aria ‘Morte io non temo, il sai,’ she chillingly imparted Giulietta’s terror and uncertainty, and she rose to the top Bs of ‘Ah! non poss’io partire,’ her plea for her father’s absolution, on the wings of a spirit already fleeing this world. The emotive power of the top A with which she began ‘Ah! crudel! che mai facesti’ disclosed the enormity of Giulietta’s shock and dismay, and she matched the dignity and poignant simplicity of Ms. Lindsey’s singing of Romeo’s death with a profoundly moving rendering of Giulietta’s death. Like her colleagues, Ms. Cabell ornamented her music insightfully, but the foremost achievement of her performance was the serene confidence with which she gave a masterclass in the art of mining every magnificent diamond from Bellini’s score rather than distracting the audience with the cheap sparkles of interposed crystal and glass.
If the essence of bel canto could be distilled and bottled like Donizetti’s elixir of love, it would be a commodity more precious than petroleum. In this age in which singers are expected to master virtually every style of music, a performance in which bel canto receives consistently polished treatment among cast, chorus, orchestra, and conductor is as rare as the Hope diamond—and, to those who love bel canto, as valuable. Washington Concert Opera followed a March performance of Il corsaro that made the Verdi efforts of many of the world’s most acclaimed opera companies seem amateurish with a presentation of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi that seemed steeped not just in respect for Bellini but in the truest, most fleeting ethos of bel canto. This was a performance that sensually, sensationally told the woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo.
Sì, fuggire: Kate Lindsey as Romeo (left) and Nicole Cabell as Giulietta (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]