Bellini's Rare Bird: 'The Capulets And The Montagues'


Eri Nakamura as Juliet and Tara Erraught as Romeo in the Bavarian State Opera production of Bellini's 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi.' i i

hide captionEri Nakamura as Juliet and Tara Erraught as Romeo in the Bavarian State Opera production of Bellini's 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi.'

Wilfried Hösl/Bavarian State Opera
Eri Nakamura as Juliet and Tara Erraught as Romeo in the Bavarian State Opera production of Bellini's 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi.'

Eri Nakamura as Juliet and Tara Erraught as Romeo in the Bavarian State Opera production of Bellini's 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi.'

Wilfried Hösl/Bavarian State Opera

While it might seem surprising, Vincenzo Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues is a true rarity: a successful opera based on the celebrated tale of Romeo and Juliet.

At first glance, you would think the story would be a natural for the opera house. There's the pair of passionate young lovers, kept apart by the pointless bickering of their colorful families; the kindly friend who comes up with an ingenious scheme for the lovers to be together; a simple mistake that leads to tragedy, heartbreak and death.

The Hit Single

Midway through Act One, Juliet (soprano Eri Nakamura) is alone in her room. Dreading her marriage to Tebaldo, and longing for Romeo, she sings the aria "O quante volte," saying, "How many times must I weep ..."

'O quante volte'

4 min 43 sec

Whether it's found in the classic tragedy by Shakespeare or in the ancient legend that inspired it, the story would seem to have everything it needs to perk a composer's interest. And, true to form, it has led to lots of great concert music, including the famous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky, a ballet score by Prokofiev that's a staple in the orchestral repertory and a blockbuster "Dramatic Symphony" by Berlioz.

The B Side

Later in the first act, Romeo and Juliet meet secretly in her room, where Romeo (mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught) proposes that they run away together. When Juliet hesitates, Romeo begins their scene-ending duet by singing "Vieni, e in me riposa" — "Come and rest in me."

When it comes to opera, things have turned out far differently — though not through lack of effort. Dozens of composers have tried their hand at Romeo and Juliet operas, over a span of more than two hundred years, but almost none have made the grade. Ever heard of the 1776 opera by Georg Benda, or the 1862 version by Leopold Damrosch? How about the 1916 Romeo and Juliet by John Barkworth? Probably not — and there are plenty of other R & J obscurities where those came from.

All told, there are really only two Romeo and Juliet operas that still hold the stage today. One is the 1867 score by Charles Gounod, and the other is the drama featured here, Bellini's I Capuleti e i MontecchiThe Capulets and the Montagues.

Bellini wrote his opera in 1830, and while it took him only six weeks to finish it, that's not quite as impressive as it might sound. Much of its music had already been composed for an earlier opera called Zaira. That one didn't fare too well — it was actually hissed at its premiere. So Bellini promptly recycled the score to create The Capulets and the Montagues. When the new opera proved successful the composer took to calling it "Zaira's Revenge."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Soprano Eri Nakamura and mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught play the ill-fated lovers, in a production led by conductor Yves Abel.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'The Capulets And The Montagues'

The opera's two-act libretto is by Felice Romani, who went on to write the librettos for nearly all of Bellini's most famous works, including Norma and La Sonnambula. Unlike so many other versions of the Romeo and Juliet story, this one is not based on Shakespeare. Instead, it's rooted in several old Italian versions of the same legend.

Tara Erraught as Romeo. i i

hide captionTara Erraught as Romeo.

Wilfried Hösl/Bavarian State Opera
Tara Erraught as Romeo.

Tara Erraught as Romeo.

Wilfried Hösl/Bavarian State Opera

ACT ONE opens at the home of the Capulets, Juliet's family. They get word that their arch-enemy, Romeo of the Montagues, is sending an emissary to negotiate for peace. But there's not much chance of that, as Romeo has recently killed the Capulet's oldest son.

The Montagues' emissary arrives, and it's Romeo himself. He proposes that the two families end their dispute — and he also has a more personal proposal. He's willing to cement the peace by marrying Juliet. Capulet, Juliet's father, angrily refuses. Capulet is still looking to avenge his son, and Juliet is already engaged to Tebaldo.

In the next scene, Juliet is in her room, preparing unhappily for her wedding. She and Romeo are deeply in love, and she wants nothing to do with Tebaldo. Lorenzo, the family physician, then arrives. He feels for Juliet, and he's brought Romeo with him for a secret visit. Romeo wants Juliet to run away with him. But she can't bring herself to betray her family, and turns him down.

The act concludes in a courtyard, where the Capulets are preparing the wedding feast. Romeo is there in disguise, hoping to abduct Juliet, but the Capulets recognize him. When Romeo openly declares his love for Juliet, a battle breaks out, and the lovers are separated.

Who's Who

Eri Nakamura ............ Juliet

Tara Erraught ...........Romeo

Dimitri Pittas ...........Tebaldo

Carlo Cigni .............Lorenzo

Steven Humes ....... Capulet

Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Yves Abel, conductor

As ACT TWO begins, Juliet is at home, alone. She hasn't heard how the battle turned out, and she's afraid that either her father or Romeo has been killed.

Lorenzo arrives with the good news that both men are still alive. He also convinces Juliet that there's only one way to avoid the marriage to Tebaldo, and instead wind up with Romeo. Lorenzo will give Juliet a potion that simulates death, and she'll be revived after she's "laid to rest" in the family mausoleum. In the meantime, Lorenzo will tell Romeo about the scheme. Then, Romeo can rescue her from the tomb and the lovers can escape together. Juliet is hesitant, but she's also desperate. So she agrees to the plan and swallows the potion.

The scene changes to an isolated clearing outside the palace, where Romeo has confronted Tebaldo. They're about to fight a duel when a funeral procession approaches, carrying Juliet's body for burial. Romeo is grief-stricken — because somehow, Lorenzo has failed to inform him that Juliet's death is a fake.

Romeo follows the procession to the tomb. When everyone has gone, he goes in. He sings a farewell to Juliet, and then takes poison. Juliet is revived, and manages to tell Romeo about Lorenzo's drastic plan, but it's too late. Romeo dies, and Juliet also collapses. As the opera ends, their families rush into the mausoleum — and find both lovers dead.



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