Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča shine in Deutsche Grammophon release I Capuleti E I Montecchi

Reviewing an audio recording of an opera is a daunting task. Opera is a complete art form; it has music, acting, singing, staging and even choreography. Any audio recording tends to pale from a live performance. Opera, with all the additional aspects of it, suffers even more from the lack of visuals to support the music and libretto. Listening to I Capuleti E I Montecchi recently released by Deutsche Grammophon was extremely enjoyable with the incredible clarity in the voices of Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča, yet this was perhaps the most difficult review I have done to-date.

The music of Vincenzo Bellini is at the beginning of the Romantic music style, with lots of remnants of classical music elements. The opening overture has bold classical statements with the beginnings of bombastic sections which lead the way to the music of Puccini and Strauss. There are arias which allow the vocalists to shine, but are perhaps more lyrically focused than operas in the classical era which had more pyrotechnics. In many respects I Capuleti e i Montecchi comes right at the beginning of the golden age of opera and a perfect way to usher in nearly 100 years of great operatic moments.

Written in 1830 for the Carnival season at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Bellini used the libretto of Felice Romani using the Italian Renaissance sources for Romeo and Juliette rather than the story by Shakespeare. Much of the music was reworked from Bellini’s unsuccessful Zaira which allowed him to finish I Capuleti e i Montecchi in less than two months.

One of the most attractive aspects of this recording is the clarity of voice. The recitatives are remarkably comprehensible. Part of that is due to the forward presentation of the voices in the mix, but mostly it is because of the excellent diction of the performers.

Joseph Calleja as Tebaldo has a gorgeous voice, which is rich and sonorous, with a strength that provides punch while still maintaining tenderness. His “L’amo tano” perfectly sets him up as Romeo’s nemesis.

Robert Gleadow has a wonderfully rich bass voice, perfect for Lorenzo. The Capulet who tries to help Romeo and Giulietta has some magnificent moments. Mr Gleadow’s voice is perfectly set to bust through the strongest moments. Even when the Capulti chorus is calling out “All’armi!, All’armi!”, Mr Gleadow’s voice can be heard. This is no small feat for a bass.

Bellini wrote the part of Romeo for a female soprano rather than for a castrato (which was falling out of favor in the early 1800’s). Elīna Garanča had her work cut out for her as this is a great, yet demanding role, singing throughout the performance. There are moments where she must sing with a boldness of a cavalier, corresponding to the men in strength of intent, and others where her voice is ideally matched with Anna Netrebko as Giulietta for tender moments and some of the finest duets written for two sopranos.

Anna Netrebko’s voice tore my heart out with “Eccomi in lieta vesta”, where she speaks about needing to marry Tebaldo in the morning and yet having already married Romeo.

This is immediately followed by the aria “Oh! quante volte” giving Ms Netrebko a chance to really shine. Again, there aren’t the pyrotechnics of earlier classical arias, but the tenderness she pours out in her voice fills you with a sense of her emotional turmoil. It is delightfully done. Throughout the opera Giulietta has some of the best music in terms of melody and Ms Netrebko sings each moment with tender perfection.

When Romeo suggests running away, the recitative between Ms Garanča and Ms Netrebko allows both the women to show the strength in their voices. Yet, it is followed by “Ah, crudel, d’onor ragioni” allowing them tender, anguished moments. Their voices are beautifully blended, each maintaining a sense of individuality in specific moments as to clearly identify who is singing at any given time. The two voices balance so perfectly to completely envelope their voices into one spirit.

There are, however, moments in the recording that don’t work so well. Because there is no stage action to follow, there are moments where the chorus is singing, or multiple voices supported by strong orchestration where the voices are lost, unintelligible. Perhaps this is due to microphones being further from the voices in choral moments, or a fault of the orchestration, mix or any number of other factors. It is the one down-side of reviewing an opera performance on recording – there is no stage action to provide clarity where sound alone does not.

That said, the strength in the male choruses of Capuleti do have moments where they shine. “Lieta notta avventurosa” is a great piece that really allows the men to be bold, joyous and very “manly”.

Fabio Luisi did a masterful job with pacing of the music throughout the production. The flow was seamless yet dynamic, constantly moving to keep the tension of the music, providing a sense of action all the way through. When the action needed to be bold or tense, the strength of the orchestral accents was driven to perfectly match the inflection of the voices. Yet, when the music needed to be tender, it was light and liquid, again corresponding to the voices perfectly.

I Capuleti E I Montecchi performed by the Wiener Singakademie was recorded live in Vienna, April 2008. It is a superb recording; the fact it was done live makes it even more astonishing that it was so crystal clear in nearly every moment. I wish I could have been in the audience to see the full performance.

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