NEW YORK, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The 200th anniversary of composer Vicenzo Bellini's birth is being celebrated around the world with performances of his operas that bind words to ravishing melodies with a simplicity of style that is still appealing to modern audiences.
The New York City Opera is staging an updated version of "The Capulets and the Montagues" for the occasion. The Metropolitan Opera staged a new production of "Norma" last week and the Lyric Opera of Chicago will revive its "Capulets" production in November.
Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story is less well known than the more dramatic "Norma," a vehicle for such divas as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, but just as beautiful musically. Bellini's Giulietta is no vengeful priestess like Norma but an undecided girl torn between loyalty to her father and love for Romeo.
"The Capulets and the Montagues" was composed in the middle of Bellini's career, which spanned only 10 years before his untimely death of dysentery at the age of 33. It was composed in 1830, a year before "Norma" and went unheard for years until a revival of interest in Bellini's works began to pick up steam in the 1960s.
Bellini's librettist, Felice Romani, the best in Italy at the time, did not base "Capulets" on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" but modeled his plot on "Giulietta e Romeo," an obscure play written by Luigi Scevola in 1818 which had Matteo Bandello's 1562 tale about of Verona's star-crossed lovers as its source.
In this version the Capulets are rulers of Verona threatened by a clan from outside their city, the Montagues, who have the backing of Italy's paramount prince. Romeo is the Montague military leader, disguised as the clan's ambassador, and Giulietta is the Capulet heiress who loves Romeo but can't forget that he killed her beloved brother in battle.
Despite these departures from the Shakespeare canon, the opera shares "Romeo and Juliet's" ending in the Capulet tomb with lovers' suicides when Giulietta's macabre plot to escape with Romeo by pretending death goes awry. Another departure is from the 13th century setting usually given both the play and Bellini's opera, placing the action instead in the early 20th century with men in white tie and tails and women in floor-length Edwardian gowns.
This is the idea of director Thor Steingraber, who has staged the opera previously for the Santa Fe Opera and the Minnesota Opera. It doesn't do any harm to this timeless romance but it doesn't make much sense either. Since the opera makes distinct references to the struggles between the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Medieval Italy, it seems pointless to move it forward to a united Italy in the reign of Victor Emmanuel III.
Singing, however, is what is important about any Bellini production, particularly the bel canto type of singing that requires limpid tone, fine legato phrasing, and impeccable technique. The City Opera cast is quite up to bel canto's challenges, particularly soprano Mary Dunleavy as Giulietta and English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the pants role of Romeo.
Dunleavy, who also sings at the Metropolitan, and Connolly are ideally paired vocally and work beautifully together as actresses.
Their singing in the first act and in the final scene was nothing less than exquisite and touching. Even though same-sex pairings in opera can be off-putting, this is not the case with Connolly who gets the stance, gestures and even appearance of an ardent youth just right, making the audience forget her masquerade.
Raul Hernandez makes a splendid Tebaldo, leader of the Capulet forces who has been promised the hand of Giulietta in marriage. This Mexican-born tenor has bright, lusty voice and all the verve necessary to make him attractive to Giulietta if she hadn't fallen for Romeo instead.
John Marcus Bindel is outstanding in the secondary bass-baritone role of Lorenzo, Giulietta's confidant and replacement for Shakespeare's Friar Laurence, and Jan Opalach, also a bass-baritone, gives his usual competent performance as Giulietta's father, Lord Capulet. Lady Capulet, played by Kristen Garver, is only a walk-on role.
Robert Israel's timeless sets, involving solid looking columns and dropped panels, are unobtrusive but gorgeously lit by Christine Binder and his costumes are elegantly fin-de-siecle. Hope Clark has contributed brief but stylish choreography fitting the period.
Joseph Resigno conducts with great sensitivity, making Bellini's rather thin orchestral support of the vocal line of the opera sound like a heavenly accompaniment. He is aided by clarinetist Laura Flax and horn player Stewart Rose, who are given important solos that set the emotional tone for two major scenes.