Review: Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti” – Pittsburgh Opera, May 3, 2008

Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” (performed in the United States as “The Capulets and the Montagues”) has accumulated some unwelcome baggage over the years, which seems to obligate a partisan of the opera to an introductory paragraph or two in its defense.  First, there is confusion with the English Bard’s play “Romeo and Juliet”, with which it shares one plot-line – Juliet feigning death to set up an escape with her lover, Romeo, and waking to find that he has committed suicide, since he also believed her deception.

[Below: the Thor Steingraber conception of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”, shown at the Pittsburgh Opera, sets by Robert Israel.  Edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

The Italians of the early 19th century (and before) seemed unimpressed by the Bard’s intricate web of sub-plots in his version of the tale of Romeo and Juliet. Since the story originated in Italy about Italians, their passions and their poisons, they tended to tell the tale their way.

So, the Romeo of “Capuleti, e Montecchi” (Bellini’s original title) is not the lovesick youth who falls for Juliet at a ball and encounters her at her balcony window, but is the leader of fierce Ghibelline warriors, who are enemies of Juliet’s Guelph-affiliated family, in much the same way as Manrico, the Vizcayan rebel in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, is an enemy of the pro-government di Lunas.

Like Manrico, Romeo has somehow managed repeatedly to infiltrate the compound of the enemy family and establish an illicit relationship with a woman under the guardianship of his enemy. A variant of this theme can be found in Bellini’s greatest opera, “Norma”, in which Pollione, the general of the Roman armies, becomes the lover (and husband) of the high priestess of the Druid sect with which the Romans are at war.

Aficionados of the 19 or so operas of the core Italian repertory will notice one difference between Romeo, on the one hand, and the other two examples of Italian opera characters who have outwitted the guardians of their enemies’ women.  Manrico and Pollione are cast as tenors, but Romeo (as the part was written and is most usually performed, including at the Pittsburgh Opera) is cast as a mezzo-soprano.

Most people who have become Italian opera fans associate the opera’s “hero” role with the lead tenor – from Pollione (1831) and Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (1835) to Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot” (1926).  No Italian opera in the core repertory lacks a lead tenor part, and no Italian opera (that is still regularly performed) written after “Capuleti”  has a lead male character assigned to a mezzo or soprano voice.

Even though it was a fashionable practice up through Rossini’s time (many of whose operas star heroic men that are played by women in “trousers”, often called travesty roles) not a single one of the operas in the core Italian repertory has a lead character played in travesty. Oscar in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” is the single example of a popular Italian core repertory opera that included even one “trouser” role.

Five decades ago a revival of performances of “Capuleti”, now almost 180 years old, began, and it has subsequently become Bellini’s fourth most performed work.   One can think of “Capuleti” as standing at the crossroads of two traditions.

In 1830, Italian opera was more or less dictated by a set of formulas for opera production, that included how an artist should sing, how the opera’s libretto should be constructed, including such details as the number of syllables in each line of verse for a particular kind of aria, and which vocal categories should be assigned to which type of character. Additionally, formulas existed as to what types of arias, ensembles and choruses – and in what general order – the opera should contain.

After 1830, different approaches to opera began to be seen with increasing frequency. The avant-garde composers would break the old rules to present a story line with greater dramatic impact.  To a considerable extent the avant-garde paralleled the movements in art and literature that replaced classical style with Romantic Era sensibility

Bellini himself (who died at age 34) promoted some of these innovations, and Donizetti and then Verdi assured that most of the old rules would be broken, then abolished, and that operas from the past that followed the rigid rules would be considered “old-fashioned”.  By the time of the ascendancy of Verdi’s mature operas, “Capuleti” and other works with travesty lead roles seemed to be gone forever, discarded on history’s ash heap.

However, even though “Capuleti”was regarded by such a Romantic composer as Franz Liszt as hopelessly outdated, his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, found merit in “Capuleti’s” music.  Wagner was age 12 when Bellini died, but in time came to appreciate and defend Bellini’s melodic style of composition.

In fact, what might surprise opera aficionados in the 21st century is that Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient,  the artist who created the roles of Senta in Wagner’s “Die Fliegende Hollaender” and Venus in Wagner’s “Tannhauser”, was simultaneously a famous “Capuleti” Romeo and previously had created the trouser role(!) of Adriano in Wagner’s first operatic success, “Rienzi”.

But what is an opera-goer attending an opera performance at the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh to think about, as to what he or she is experiencing? They are seeing a cast of worldwide importance, working together for the first time, performing in a production that holds special significance in the opera’s performance history.

Let’s discuss the cast at this point. It is evenly balanced in vocal and dramatic skills between the four principal roles.

[Below: Giulietta (Laura Claycomb) in her wedding dress, with Romeo (Vivica Genaux).  Edited image, based on David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

This website has previously argued that one of the principals, Laura Claycomb, deserves a greater world recognition than she currently garners. Claycomb equals or surpasses late 20th century super-stars in technique and dramatic ability.  She does not have the celebrity status that, say, Beverly Sills (whom Claycomb admires) had in the 1970s, and, because of that, many people who would have bought a ticket in 1978 were Sills singing, would not buy one in 2008 in which Claycomb stars, even if, in this point of her career, Claycomb’s is the more remarkable vocal instrument. (Those coming to the Pittsburgh performance are experiencing the highest quality of artistry, while those experiencing Sills in 1978 were basically paying for her celebrity and her skill – when she could muster it – at compensating for declining vocal abilities.)

Mme Claycomb’s co-star is Vivica Genaux, who has emerged as a pre-eminent artist in the trouser roles.  Much of Romeo’s music lies high in the mezzo range and Genaux has a brilliant top. If she rarely seemed the bloodthirsty warrior that the libretto implies, she played a convincing young man of Romantic sensibility.  Seeing Genaux perform a dramatic bel canto trouser role – Romeo in particular – is an experience to be treasured.

The part of Capellio, the Capulet pere, has attracted major bass voices, and Pittsburgh has obtained the extraordinarily skilled David Pittsinger (whose Comte des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon”, reviewed on this website in October, 2006 was another star in a Los Angeles Opera firmament that contained Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon and Placido Domingo). Pittsinger’s appearances in the United States are piteously sparse for a singer of his talent.

[Below: Tebaldo (Arthur Espiritu) accepts a ceremonial sword from Capellio (David Pittsinger).  Edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

The singer new to me was the Filipino tenor Arthur Espiritu, who portrayed the often dismayed Capulet son-in-law elect, Tebaldo. He proved to be an accomplished leggiero tenor with a well-honed coloratura technique.  It is revelatory to hear such a tenor as Tebaldo, rather than the famous lyric and spinto tenors –  whose heavier voices we associate with extant recordings of the role – who do not have the coloratura flexibility that Bellini surely expected.

If Pittsburgh Opera has a Renaissance man it is surely Conductor Antony Walker, who, almost exactly a month earlier sang Rhadames’ part in the Third Act of Verdi’s “Aida” on behalf of an ailing Vladimir Kuzmenko, while in the pit conducting the Pittsburgh Opera orchestra.

Walker approaches such a bel canto opera as “Capuleti” as one in which he not only allows, but rather expects, the artists to improvise their trills, cadenzas and other coloratura delights on the second verses.

Artistic administrator Christopher Hahn remarked that no one in Pittsburgh knows in what ways Claycomb, Genaux and Espiritu might change their arias from performance to performance.  Walker conducts these parts of the score with a cheerful tentativeness as if he were conducting a improvisational jazz troupe comprised of world class artists. Elsewhere in the score, he is firmly in command, beginning with the opera’s rousing overture. The traditions of bel canto are alive and well in Pittsburgh.

Vocal performances of high quality are only one part of the “Capuleti” experience.  Unlike many of the non-comic (at least not intentionally comic) operas of the 1810s and 1820s that have had 20th and 21st century revivals, there is much about it that is dramatically viable.

Bellini accepted a commission that required him to write for the cast and observe the conventions of Venice’s La Fenice Opera House, but for that commission he was well-paid, and the opera’s success was an important milestone in his rapidly rising career.  And his Romeo was no ordinary mezzo, but Giuditta Grisi, sister of the Giulia Grisi who was to create two of the most important roles in Bellini operas, Adalgisa in “Norma” and Elvira in “I Puritani”.

But even as he created an opera observing most of the old conventions, he had his librettist, Felice Romani, alter and abridge his pre-existing libretto, to quicken the opera’s pace and enhance the dramatic situations.  In fact, he cut so much material out of the old libretto that an unnerved Romani appended an apology when it was published, that so much plot exposition was lost.

That is why, in this website’s series of visits to opera companies observing current day productions of Donizetti operas (that has taken us to Paris, Zurich, Houston and San Diego so far) we added a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Steingraber production of “Capuleti”.

[Below: Romeo (Vivica Genaux) is restrained by his Montecchi partisans, while Lorenzo (Jonathan Beyer) holds Giulietta (Laura Claycomb); edited image, based on David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

This is the Bellini opera that displays the old fashion of the lead male character being sung by a female mezzo, but which at the same time points the way to a new ascendancy of drama in relationship to singing that first Donizetti, then Verdi, would lead Italian opera.

Interestingly, the production itself has California roots, and reunites Pittsburgh’s Artistic Director Hahn, Claycomb and Steingraber, for the reprise of a 1999 production created for the Los Angeles Opera. The pre-history of the Los Angeles production dates to 1991, when then San Francisco Opera General Manager Lotfi Mansouri borrowed a production of “Capuleti”, conceived in 1985 by the team of Giulio Chazalettes and Ulisse Santicchi for the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Claycomb, then a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow,  learned the role of Guilietta to cover the performances of Cecilia Gasdia (San Francisco’s Giulietta to the Romeo of Delores Ziegler).  At the time, Hahn was San Francisco Opera’s Rehearsal Administrator and Thor Steingraber was one of the Opera’s Assistant Stage Managers.

Although Gasdia performed all her scheduled roles in San Francisco, Claycomb was asked then asked to cover Gasdia’s additional European commitments as Giulietta.  In time, Claycomb was called to replace Gasdia in Geneva, to great success.

Hahn was hired by then Los Angeles Opera Founding Director Peter Hemming as Artistic Director for that company.  One of his assignments was the planning of a new production of Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” for which he signed contracts for Susanne Mentzer to sing Octavian, Claycomb to be Sophie and Eric Halfvarson (who had performed the role in San Francisco in 1993) as Ochs.

A financial downdraft required cancellation of the “Rosenkavalier” project, so Hahn sought an opera that called for a light mezzo, a leggiero soprano, and a bass-baritone, that could utilize the talents of Mentzer, Claycomb and Halfvarson, all still under contract, and recalled that each of these roles was prominent in “Capuleti”.

Rather than rent the Chicago production, which he felt was too dark, he conceived the idea of a new Los Angeles production that could be both innovative and achievable within a modest budget.  He asked Steingraber, his colleague in San Francisco, to conceptualize a new “Capuleti” production and Robert Israel, who had produced relatively low budget sets for San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theatre, to design some minimalist sets.

Steingraber’s concept was to time-shift the opera to Edwardian times, and to exploit the theme that the deaths of the young lovers can be the catalyst for reconciliation between warring factions.

The opera contains a chorus (that sometimes represents one faction, and sometimes another), the two members of the “Capuleti” faction (Capellio and Tebaldo) who are not romantically involved with any Montecchi, the two lovers, and the family doc (Lorenzo) who has access to the death-simulating pharmaceutical and acts as the facilitator of all Romeo-Giulietta interactions.

[Below: the Capuleti Gentlemen with Capellio (David Pittsinger) and Giulietta (Laura Claycomb); edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

Capellio and most of the men of the chorus are dressed as members of a gentlemen’s club, consisting of Capuleti partisans.  Tebaldo is an regimental officer.  The Montecchi are soldiers in pre-Great War uniforms, obviously enemies of the Capuleti.

The women of the chorus, whose efforts are concentrated in the second act, are dressed in mourning clothes, ready to attend Giulietta’s funeral. Lorenzo is no longer a physician, but wears a priestly collar. Since the entire opera takes place on the day of Giulietta’s scheduled wedding to Tebaldo, she wears her wedding dress throughout the performance.

Some bel canto enthusiasts may prefer to see the opera set in the Renaissance trecento. Having personally experienced both the Chicago Lyric’s Chazalettes-Santicchi production in its 1991 San Francisco Opera mounting with Gasdia and Ziegler, and the Los Angeles Opera’s Steingraber-Israel production in its Pittsburgh mounting, I believe both approaches have artistic validity.

To my mind, the time-shift to Edwardian times does work in the Steingraber concept of the opera.  It demonstrates that the hurried collaboration between Bellini and the great librettist Romani to revise existing material to meet Bellini’s vision resulted in a dramatically viable opera.

The Steingraber conceptualization is hardly the last word to presenting “Capuleti”, but his imaginative approach will inspire others to showing that this work not only provides an opportunity for modern audiences to hear the bel canto style of singing, but to see an early attempt at creating the dramatic urgency that will – by the mid-19th century – become the new dominant force of Italian opera.

Besides the principals and excellent performance by the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra under Conductor Walker, the work of the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus under the leadership of Chorus Master Mark Trawka deserves special praise.