Notes from Conductor Christopher Allen
I will never forget the first time I heard the horn solo during the orchestra prelude before Juliet’s famed aria “Oh! Quante volte.” When the orchestra phrase ends, the unaccompanied voice breaks the silence of the theater with “Eccomi in lieta vesta”. Hearing this phrase for the first time was a magical moment that remains in my memory to this day. The moment shows how expressive the human voice can be. Should the perfection of silence be broken, let it be by the human voice. Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a gem of a bygone era. Bellini helped codify a new style of singing by challenging the current technical limitations of how humans used their instrument, and just as importantly, how they expressed themselves.
The immediate success of I Capuleti e i Montecchi on the night of March 11th in 1830 can be attributed to the performances given by Rosalbina Carradori (Giulietta) and Giuditta Grisi (Romeo). Some of the music you will hear tonight is “recycled” from a previous, less successful opera, Zaira. A possible reason for Bellini’s insertion of previously composed material could have been purely practical, as the commission came just a month and half before the premiere at the 1830 Carnival season at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. It may also have been that the composer did not believe the audience gave the music a fair chance due to possible singer inadequacies at Zaira’s premiere. The bel canto period of composition is a singer-generated form. On the opening night of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the singers' extraordinary performances helped sway the public opinion toward the success of the piece. The opera only waned a bit in popularity thereafter due to the overwhelming successes of his three other operas Norma, I Puritani and La Sonnambula. As we come back to I Capuleti, we discover the “seeds” of what Bellini developed in his later works. It is my opinion that the reason to revisit I Capuleti e i Montecchi is to showcase the current generation of opera stars. This is happening at Opera Omaha, with the cast assembled here tonight.
Although music from this time period may be criticized for being formulaic or predictable, I offer another perspective. It is only within structure that we experience moments of brilliance by deviating from the norm. These unexpected moments are everywhere in this wonderful score. While you listen, ask yourself: is that where the melody was “supposed” to go? Why did the singer leap into a higher register without warning? Why did Bellini choose to drift into a harmony I was not expecting? Listen for spontaneity through improvised embellishments and cadenzas, as well as how a phrase can move forward and bend. Rubato or the manipulation of time in an eight-bar phrase, when done well, creates an unforgettable moment. There is an elasticity and freedom in the musical phrase that blossoms during this compositional period. In the 1830s it was common for singers to perform different cadenzas every night. There are historical accounts that singers would even insert arias from different operas on a given night. Although the compositional structure during the bel canto period is formulaic, a performance can prove to surprise us with vocal fireworks, spontaneity and improvisation. During the rehearsal process we have worked on creating an opera that holds true to the aesthetic of bel canto opera while still allowing the freedom to create in the moment of performance.
It takes courage to walk on the stage and fearlessly sing this music. These artists are the olympic athletes of singing. Sit back and enjoy beautiful melodic lines, virtuosic coloratura, dramatically charged ensembles and nuanced singing - all accompanied and supported by a wonderful orchestra.