CD of the Week: "I Capuleti e i Montecchi"
Note: CD of the Week will be a regular feature of this blog. Look for it on Tuesdays, starting next week.
“I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” Bellini’s take on the story of Romeo and Juliet, was written quickly and meant to be enjoyed. Like most 19th-century operas, it’s acquired a misguided sense of gravitas over the years as posterity’s view of it shifts from popular entertainment to high art. On the new Deutsche Grammophon recording, this is reflected in some oddly slow tempi from the conductor Fabio Luisi, as if he were making extra room for people to declaim. Yet Luisi’s conducting is overall so engaging, and the parts are well enough cast, that this recording of a lovely but light opera is certainly enjoyable.
The hook here is the presence of Anna Netrebko as Giulietta, alongside Elina Garanca, whom Deutsche Grammophon is doing its best to plug as a new mezzo sensation, as Romeo. They’re certainly a glamorous pair (though the cover looks more appropriate to a recording of “Dracula,” with Garanca staring fiercely at the camera while Netrebko appears to breathe her last); and the physical glamour extends to a hint of vocal resemblance; they each produce pretty shiny takes on long arcing lines. But on this account Netrebko is clearly the better singer. I’ve already outed myself as a fan, more or less (in, most recently, the March issue of Gramophone), but so far I’ve liked her better in person than on record. However, this recording, made last April during concert performances in Vienna, captures some of the limpidity and radiance she has at her best.
Garanca's role is arguably more interesting; but she is, to my ear, more limited. Her low register is weaker than Netrebko’s, which is a handicap in a role that really wants a firm foundation. She bases her interpretation on intense adolescent ardor, which gives a certain wildness to the singing that often carries it off pitch, sometimes to the point of stridency. She also demonstrates the tendency of many singers of her generation to fling herself into the emotion of the part so much that she overlooks the details. The in-between, throwaway notes sometimes fail to sound; but paying attention to just these seemingly unimportant notes is what makes the difference between simply moving through a performance and taking it to a higher level.
Joseph Calleja, the tenor who sings Tebaldo (Tybalt), is occasionally cited as the next big thing by those who are still occupied with tenor-watching, though the hopes of finding a Fourth Tenor have been raised and dashed so often (can you say Alagna, Cura, Licitra, Villazón?) that audiences tend to hedge their bets. [See note, below.*] And indeed, he has quite a beautiful voice: soft-grained, lyrical, and supple – at its best. My reservations involve a certain degree of nasality in the voice (I risk becoming tiresome on the singers who attempt to follow the old Italian advice about singing “in the mask,” or the front of the face, by placing their voices squarely in their noses); the same carelessness as Garanca about his little notes; and the fact that the soft-grained quality is so pronounced that the voice sometimes seems to buckle at the knees when it attempts to reach a phrase’s climax. It can be awfully pretty, but it could be so much more effective if it had more muscle. In the Act II, Scene ii duet when Tybalt and Romeo face off and Garanca’s white-hot intensity has its finest moment, Calleja sounds for all the world as if he were singing a love song.
The other singers are perfectly fine – Robert Gleadow notable as a youthful Lorenzo, who is a doctor rather than a friar in this iteration of the story. Bellini based his version of “Romeo” not on Shakespeare but on a long tradition of Italian plays on the same subject, meaning that there are some signal divergences from the story as most of us know it. It does, however, end tragically with a double death, rather than with the happy ending that this tale was sometimes given in other 19th-century accounts.
Netrebko and Garanca - or their marketing machine - are trying to put a happy end on this "Capuleti" by taking their show on the road; they're currently finishing up a run of performances at Covent Garden. But since Netrebko, having recently returned to the stage after the birth of her son, was still feeling out her current vocal estate when I heard her in January, I'd turn to this CD, for the time being, as a better gauge of her potential in the role.
*NOTE: Yes, I know all four of those gentlemen are still singing – some, particularly Alagna, very well. But none of them has emerged as a dependable and exciting star, and at least one of them, Villazón, appears to be in a crisis so deep it’s unclear whether he will ever come out of it.
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