Album Title: Bellini - I Capuleti e I Montecchi
Performer: Anna Netrebko / Elina Garanca / Joseph Calleja / Robert Gleadow / Tiziano Bracci / Wiener Singakademie / Wiener Symphoniker / Fabio Luisi.
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Play Time
: 76'10" + 51'26"
Recorded: Vienna Konzerthaus 2009

This is not the most famous of bel canto masterpieces but I have always been in love with Bellini's first opera for the Teatro la Fenice of Venice. Written in 1830, Bellini's opera is not based on Shakespeare -- then unknown in Italy -- but on an Italian play by Luigi Scevola itself dating to a Renaissance version by Luigi da Porto, one of Shakespeare's sources. The story itself also differs from the classical Romeo and Juliet.

Bellini accomplished composing and staging his new opera in little more than a month and a half. One reason for this was employing the music from his opera Zaira which he had composed for Parma the previous year. Zaira was not successful and Bellini got his revenge by borrowing his own melodic ideas for I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

Bellini's opera was designed for women, with the two leading roles (male and female) both carried by them. The main reason was the relative weakness of tenor and baritone protagonists available to the composer at the time. In fact, Bellini decided to write no leading tenor part. "Trousers roles" were quite common for Italian opera when the number of castratos declined. Many an old opera had to be restaged with women singing the old male leads. In such operas, the tenor roles were invariably secondary as here is the case with Tebaldo.

The model for I capuleti e I Montecchi was probably the Giulietta e Romeo version of Niccolo Antonio Zingarelli, Bellini's teacher in Naples. Respect for his old maestro could be why Bellini decided on a different name for his opera, being reluctant to compete directly with Zingarelli.

I must admit having difficult with total objectivity about opera in general and bel canto in particular. Bel canto is about pure emotion. What you feel belongs exclusively to yourself, all critics be damned. I cannot measure exactly what most prevails in Bellini's opera, vocal beauty or dramatic intensity. Both are obvious but in what precise proportion? What is the magic recipe? I don't have the answer and can only confess to the fleeting nature of this question as it vainly attempts to crack the secret code. Only live emotions can tell whether it ultimately works its charms on you or not.

Furthermore, it also isn't easy to make perfect assessments of the two stellar lead performances on this recording. They are obviously first-class performers but as soon as I begin to consider all the criticism leveled against them -- particularly Netrebko -- I quickly get lost. It seems unreasonable to judge whether Anna Netrebko is indeed the perfect incarnation of Juliet or not. If her voice catches you on fire, you won't care. In the end, only emotion matters.

Turning back on the album, it is beautiful in every respect, from the masterful recording to the flawless arias and duets of the two leading ladies. At the baton, Fabio Luisi leads the Vienna forces (Wiener Singakademie and Wiener Symphoniker) in a performance which manages to accentuate the dramatic range of this tragedia. All protagonists give highly charged and passionate readings. It is without doubt one of the finest expressions of bel canto and there is a kind of magic on this recording. There are only few operatic arias capable of evoking such sensations of gorgeous elegance and beauty. When Anna Netrebko segues into the first act's sumptuous lament of "Oh! Quante volte" with considerable inspiration, it is a truly magical event even if her voice begins to sound a bit mature for the innocent Juliet. When in Act II she intones "ha non poss'io partire...", it is difficult to avoid feeling deeply touched by Juliet's desperation and the pure beauty of her full warm tone.

Elina Garanca too delivers an extraordinary performance. The first act's "la tremanda ultrice spada" is genuine evidence for how perfectly she dominates the art of bel canto. Last but non least, Josep Calleja is a terrific Tebaldo. He demonstrates once more that he is part of the most brilliant grouping of contemporary lyrical tenors. His artistic strength and intuitive sense of urgency are a perfect match for Garanca's excellent reading.

Is this the perfect version then? For one, I do not believe in perfect versions. There is quite an impressive discography at hand considering that this opera is not performed that often. I particularly like Riccardo Muti's live recording from Covent Garden with Edita Gruberova, Agnes Baltsa and Dano Raffanti though it surely does not convey the same emotion. His is a more dramatic atmosphere with a most fragile Juliet but the beauty of bel canto is better served by Netrebko than Gruberova.

A certain weakness of this recording (or simply an interesting perspective) is the similarity between the lead voices. Garanca's mezzo is more of a high mezzo and her timbre in the higher register sometimes mirrors Netrebko's too much to be easily distinguished. In the duets between Juliet and Romeo, one might find it difficult to tell the mezzo from the soprano, both sounding very similar in weight and colors. But let's not split hairs, this recording is simply fabulous. Netrebko's perfectly executed trills are a joy, it is a huge performance and pure emotion is delivered along all the tracks. Simply cue up and enjoy!