I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) is an Italian opera by Vincenzo Bellini.
The libretto by Felice Romani was a reworking of a the story of Romeo and Juliet for an opera by Nicola Vaccai called Giulietta e Romeo. This was based on Italian sources rather than taken directly from Shakespeare. (The tomb scene from Vaccai's opera has sometimes been performed with Bellini's opera.)
Bellini was persuaded to write the opera for the 1830 Carnival season at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, with only a month and a half available for composition. He succeeded by appropriating a large amount of music previously written for his unsuccessful opera Zaira.
The first performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi was on 11 March 1830.
Behind the libretto stand many Italian, ultimately Renaissance, sources rather than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Romani rewrote for Bellini the Giulietta e Romeo he had written originally for Vaccai, which drew on a play Giulietta e Romeo of 1818 by Luigi Scevola, and which had also been set by E. Torriani. The theme was very popular in Italy: there were earlier librettos by Luzzi for Marescalchi (1785, Venice), Foppa for Zingarelli (1796, Milan), and Buonaiuti for P. C. Guglielmi (1810, London). The first Italian libretto explicitly based on Shakespeare’s play was by M. M. Marcello, for Marchetti’s Romeo e Giulietta (1865, Trieste).
In Venice to prepare the local première of Il pirata with Giuditta Grisi as Imogene, Bellini wrote I Capuleti in a month and a half (starting about 20 January) after the Teatro La Fenice had been let down by Giovanni Pacini. He wrote the part of Romeo for Grisi (whose presence, together with a relatively weak male company, may have conditioned the choice of subject); it rarely descends below c'. Giulietta was sung by Maria Caradori-Allan, Tebaldo by Lorenzo Bonfigli and Lorenzo by Ranieri Pocchini Cavalieri. Bellini had intended the part of Lorenzo for a bass, but in Act 1 of the autograph score he transposed it for tenor, and in Act 2 the part is written in the tenor clef throughout. Although these changes were possibly for Senigallia (summer 1830), Cavalieri, the singer at the première, appears to have been a tenor. (Published scores and most performances assign the role to a bass.)
Bellini thoroughly reworked ten melodies from his unsuccessful Zaira into I Capuleti e i Montecchi: he explained that "Zaira, hissed at Parma, was avenged by I Capuleti". Giulietta’s "Oh quante volte" in Act 1 uses Nelly’s romanza "Dopo l’oscuro nembo" from Adelson e Salvini (1825, Naples). Bellini prepared a version for La Scala (26 December 1830), lowering Giulietta’s part for the mezzo-soprano Amalia Schütz-Oldosi. Early librettos divide the opera into four parts; at Bologna in 1832 Maria Malibran replaced the last part with the tomb scene from Vaccai’s final act, a tradition followed by contralto Romeos such as Alboni (Vaccai’s scene is included as an appendix to Ricordi’s vocal score). This version was performed at Paris and London with Pasta as Romeo in 1833, but in Florence the following year Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis restored Bellini’s ending. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s singing as Romeo in Leipzig (1834) and Magdeburg (1835) created a profound impression on the young Wagner. I Capuleti was revived in 1935, the centenary of Bellini’s death, at Catania and in 1954 at Palermo, with Giulietta Simionato as Romeo and Rosanna Carteri as Giulietta. In 1966 Claudio Abbado prepared a version for La Scala in which Romeo was sung by a tenor, Giacomo Aragall; the cast included Renata Scotto as Giulietta and Luciano Pavarotti as Tebaldo. This version was also performed in Amsterdam, Rome and Philadelphia and at the 1967 Edinburgh Festival but is no longer used.
In I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, (particularly the final scene) Bellini further establishes the melodic morbidezza evident in the earlier Bianca e Fernando, and something of the formal unconventionality found in the works of his maturity. The concentration of the action on the two principal characters is notably successful. The opera is primarily a work of reclamation, in which previously written material is skilfully adapted to its new context. Admittedly, the haste with which it was put together is reflected in a certain schematicism and lack of rhythmic variety in the closed numbers. On the other hand, the subject of star-crossed lovers enabled Bellini to play from strength as a purveyor of tender, elegiac melody. Here, as in Zaira, he infused the simple, syllabic vocal writing of La straniera with melismatic bravura, preparing the way for that perfect synthesis of expression and virtuosity he attained in La sonnambula. As the last important opera with a breeches-part hero, I Capuleti survived throughout the century as a favourite war-horse for star sopranos such as Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient and Johanna Wagner, despite the hostility of progressives such as Liszt, who dismissed it as intolerably old-fashioned, and the ambivalence of Wagner, who loved its melodies while deploring its dramatic conception. Berlioz was no less contemptuous, though he singled out the unison stretta ("Se ogni speme è a noi rapita") for the lovers in the Act 1 finale for special praise.
The story takes place in and around the palace of Capellio (Capulet) in Verona during the 13th century. In this version of the story the Capuleti and Montecchi are rival political factions (Guelph and Ghibelline respectively) rather than Shakespeare's 'two households, both alike in dignity'. Capellio is the father of Giulietta (Juliet) and the leader of the Capuleti. Giulietta is betrothed to Tebaldo (Tybalt), however she has already met and fallen in love with Romeo, leader of the Montecchi. This is a secret to all but Lorenzo (Lawrence), her doctor and confidant. Complicating matters, Romeo has inadvertently killed the son of Capellio (Giulietta's brother) in battle.
In the palace, Capellio (bass) and Tebaldo (tenor) address their followers advising rejection of an offer of peace to be brought by an envoy from Romeo. Tebaldo will avenge the killing of Capellio's son to celebrate his marriage to Giulietta ('È serbata a questo acciaro'). Capellio wants the marriage to take place immediately, brushing aside the objections of Lorenzo (bass) that Giulietta is ill with a fever.
Romeo (mezzo-soprano) enters in the guise of a Montague envoy, offering peace to be guaranteed by the marriage of Romeo and Giulietta. He explains that Romeo regrets the death of Capellio's son ('Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio'), and offers to take his place as a second son for the old man. Capellio indicates that Tebaldo has already taken on that role and rejects all idea of peace. Romeo accepts their challenge of war ('La tremenda ultrice spada').
In her room Giulietta (soprano) longs for Romeo (in the romanza 'Oh! quante volte'). Lorenzo enters. He has arranged for Romeo to come to her by a secret door. Romeo tries to persuade Giulietta to escape with him, but she resists in the name of family law and honour, declaring that she would prefer to die of a broken heart.
Another part of the palace, the Capuleti are celebrating the forthcoming marriage. Recognized by Lorenzo, Romeo is in disguise awaiting the support of his soldiers to prevent the wedding. In the tumult following the armed attack by the Montecchi, Giulietta sees Romeo and he again unsuccessfully urges her to run away with him. Capellio and Tebaldo discover them, believing Romeo to be the Montecchi envoy. Giulietta tries to shield him from her father, but he proudly tells them his true name. The Montagues enter to protect him and the lovers are separated by their two factions.
Introduced by an arioso for cello, Giulietta awaits news of the fighting in another part of the palace. Lorenzo tells her that Romeo lives, but she will soon be taken away to Tebaldo's castle. He persuades her to take a sleeping drug that will make it appear that she has died. He will arrange for Romeo (and himself) to be present when she awakes. Capellio comes to order her to leave with Tebaldo at dawn. She begs her father's forgiveness before she dies ('Ah! non poss'io partire'). Capellio is alarmed and suspects the involvement of Lorenzo. He will have him watched.
The grounds of the palace. Romeo is impatiently waiting for Lorenzo who fails to appear. Tebaldo enters and they have an angry duet ('Stolto! a un sol mio grido'). They fight but are interrupted by a funeral procession ('Pace alla tua bell'anima'). It is Giulietta's. The rivals are united in remorse, asking each other for death.
The tombs of the Capuleti. Romeo enters and his companions open Giulietta's tomb. Romeo bids her farewell ('Deh! tu, bell'anima') and swallows poison. Giulietta awakes finding Romeo surprised by her simulated death and unaware of Lorenzo's plan. With great pathos, Romeo tells her that he has already acted to end his life. He dies and Giulietta, unable to live on without him, expires on his body. The Capuleti and Montecchi blame Capellio for the tragedy.
This synopsis by Simon Holledge was first published on Opera japonica http://www.operajaponica.org and appears here by permission.