BELLINI I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Fabio Biondi’s recording of I Capuleti e i Montecchi is the first to appear on period instruments. Caught in the dry acoustic of Rieti’s Teatro Flavio Vespasiano, there is plenty to please in Europa Galante’s performance, but also to infuriate in equal measure. Bellini’s star-cross’d lovers aren’t really inspired by Shakespeare but Felice Romani’s libretto is drawn from the same Italian sources. The opera was dashed off in just six weeks in early 1830, in time for the Venice Carnival season. To aid the compositional process, Bellini borrowed mercilessly from his recent Parma flop Zaira, with eight numbers purloined. Much of the writing is thin and formulaic, although Giulietta’s ‘Oh! quante volte!’ – originally Nelly’s romanza from Adelson e Salvini – stands at a higher level of inspiration. A successful performance relies on excellent bel canto technique for the leading couple, especially the mezzo singing the travesty role of Romeo.
Biondi casts the Alaskan mezzo Vivica Genaux as Romeo. Usually heard in Baroque repertory and the machine-gun rattle of Rossini, Genaux’s voice is an acquired taste. Her chest register has a metallic edge not unlike Marilyn Horne’s, but her upper register is wiry. Unfortunately, you can often hear the gear changes, but this doesn’t prevent her Act 1 cabaletta ‘La tremenda ultrice spada’ from being tremendously exciting. Elīna Garanča, on DG’s 2008 recording, is much more the bel canto stylist. Genaux’s vibrato gapes rather wide at times, making her contributions to the duet with Giulietta, ‘Vieni, in me riposa’, a trial. I’ve enjoyed her far more in Vivaldi.
The Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas is better as Giulietta, although she is inclined to over-emote. Her light, silvery soprano lends a fragility to her character that Anna Netrebko doesn’t always manage, although she and Genaux don’t blend anywhere near as well in duet as Netrebko and Garanča. Fabrizio Beggi is a solid Lorenzo but Davide Giusti’s Tebaldo is rather pinched and ungainly in his sole aria.
Biondi certainly draws some exciting sounds from Europa Galante, lively woodwinds and thunderous timpani injecting tangy period-instrument flavours to proceedings. He zips along breezily, eight minutes swifter than Fabio Luisi, himself no slouch. The flute-and-harp introduction to ‘Oh! quante volte!’ has airy lightness, although the natural horn here is on quavery form. Lorenzo Coppola’s clarinet contributions are poised. However, the 17 strings sound anaemic and the recording suffers from a hyperactive fortepianist tinkling her way busily through the score. Other period-instrument Bellini – Norma and La Sonnambula (both Decca/La Scintilla) – don’t introduce fortepiano continuo and Biondi offers no compelling reason for one in his booklet-note. Definitely a case of sample before you buy.