It was a bold stroke for Bellini and his librettist to title their new opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi rather than go with the more popular blockbuster title, surely ensuring a sold out house: Romeo and Juliet. (They chose to mine more common Italian sources for the story rather than defer to that ol’ Englishman’s tale.) However, it gives the perfect preview to what lay in store for the listener, for this is not, in reality, a love story. This is a story of impossibility, of duty and fate, of desperation and futility. You will not find light breaking through yonder windows, nor a pining to transform oneself into gloves upon cheeks, for when we meet the two young lovers all the juicy parts have transpired already. We’re simply left with the mess. But oh what operatic bliss this mess doth be!
As a woman of a certain age, the prospect of portraying perhaps the most beloved, well-known young lover of all literature is unquestionably overwhelming. (Oh how I LOVED my first visual introduction to the character, Leonard Whiting. As a 13 year old girl, I truly thought we were destined to be together!) The first order of business was to erase any foolish attempts to compete with the great Romeos of the past – those icons of the stage, screen, and opera (not a small order by any stretch of the fertile imagination), and simply work to craft a portrayal which came from an organic place within me. In fact, the very same process a singer must go through with any role. Because singers work with the greatest masterpieces for a living, the temptation to exceedingly and obstinately revere the piece to a fault can be overwhelming and keep us from making it our own, from getting right into the bloody marrow of the piece and bring it to palpitating life. I’ve learned, slowly and methodically over the years, to give myself permission to make these pieces my own for the time that I sing them. It’s the only way I think a performer can have true believability on the stage. We must feel as if we are saying/singing/creating our lines for the very first time ~ thinking of them and uttering them on the spot, as if we are the composer in that moment.
We meet Bellini’s Romeo months after he first climbed that fated balcony and hours after just having killed the son of Capulet: he strides into the grieving enemy’s territory and audaciously proposes a peace settlement to them. We see immediately how impulsive, passionate and stuck he is, for upon defiant resistance from his audience, he quickly shifts gears essentially lofting a curse on their house himself, saying “Fine – you want WAR? You’ve got it – but all the bloodshed will be on YOUR hands, not mine.” He came to love and offer peace, and leaves distraught, for he knows he is an unwitting, inexorable part of the machinery of war that cannot be stopped.
It’s quite easy to find a modern context for Bellini’s approach to this piece: imagine for a delicious moment Bin Laden’s oldest son falling hopelessly, completely, utterly in love with George Bush’s youngest daughter. And it’s mutual. Then imagine the son arriving in Washington, barging into the Oval Office to say to the President, “Sir, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve got it all figured out! If you could just let your daughter marry me, we could solve all this unnecessary conflict. Trust me – it will totally work!” Universal themes, once again, take center stage at the opera house! Seriously. Think about it.
Any time Giulietta and Romeo meet in this version, they are in conflict. There is no love scene, no love duet, and no peace. Romeo continuously begs her to flee with him promising much happier days far from their troubles, yet she wails repeatedly that she cannot desert her father, as much as she may love him. It is hopeless and seemingly impossible. Romeo feels utter despair at being torn in two and not being able to solve this conflict (what man doesn’t want to be the problem solver?). The conflict lasts through the Act 1 Finale (“Come away with me” – “Are you not HEARING me? I CAN’T!”), and even carries straight through to the infamous tomb scene. Upon Giulietta’s awakening, again, they are in immediate conflict. (“Didn’t Lorenzo tell you?” “No. Tell me what?”) The only moment of peace and resolution for the two of them ~ and in this production, the only loving embrace ~ happens in death.
But even Bellini can’t let that stand, for he brings in the warring parties over their tombs and ends with the two sides continuing to face off and threaten revenge. This most decidedly is not a love story, but much more a comment on war and ridiculous territorial rubbish. You know, insanity is often defined as repeating the same things and expecting a different result. Shakespeare penned his take on this old Italian story between 1591 and 1595. Yep. Apparently we’re pretty insane.
With all this talk of war and enemies and lost peace, how fabulous is it that Bellini penned some of his most EXQUISITELY beautiful and tender music for this piece? Tchaikovsky called it:
“I have always felt great sympathy towards Bellini. When I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinged with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry. And to this day, in spite of his many shortcomings—that is his vapid accompaniments, the vulgar and trivial strettas of his ensembles, the coarseness and banality of his recitatives—I have nonetheless retained my sympathy for his music.”
~ Letter 1987 to Nadezhda von Meck, 7/19 March 1882, from Naples
Indeed, he sculpted sublime melodies, arching phrases, haunting, tangled, tumbling duets and as a result paints the most tender, vulnerable sketch of two young lovers completely embroiled in society’s snare of greed, anger and hate. The juxtaposition of the sublime melody against the raw emotion makes the bittersweet story all the more potent.
I can hardly describe what a joy it is to sing such divine music while portraying such a timeless story. I do think this is as good as it gets. But it’s an enormous challenge which demands a perilous range, fervent emotion, formidable vocality, and immense stamina. There is not a single moment to relax within this role ~ either vocally or dramatically ~ but, if I’ve done my job well, the payoff is tremendous.
I’m so happy and fortunate to be bringing this role to San Francisco with a divine cast and in a stunning production (not to mention costumes!)
“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
~ William Shakespeare