This year for the Whitsun festival in Salzburg the director, Cecilia Bartoli, has chosen an entire program about Romeo and Juliet: operas, ballet, movies, and West Side Story. One of the operas is an absolute rarity: Giulietta e Romeo by Nicola Zingarelli, composed in 1796, which had great success in Europe until about 1830, and then was forgotten. Zingarelli is a Neapolitan composer, a contemporary of Cimarosa and Paisiello, who, unlike them, did not take to opera buffa, but continued in the school of the Italian opera seria of the eighteenth century (probably writing unbearable boring stuff).
Giulietta e Romeo is his most famous opera, and it features a soprano castrato as Romeo, and a mezzo as Giulietta. One of the last castrati, Girolamo Crescentini, turned it into one of his greatest hits, and, after him, Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran.
Shakespeare’s plot gets completely devastated by the libretto composer, Foppa, who proceeds to:
- cut the balcony scene;
- cut the scene where the two lovers wake up after their first and last night together (and also cuts their night together);
- mix together the characters of Tybalt and Count Paris, so that Tybalt is not Juliet’s cousin, but her suitor, and he gets killed by Romeo in a duel at the end of the first act;
- invents the character of Gilberto, a mix between Friar Laurence (who marries Romeo and Juliet, and gives Juliet the fake poison) and a kind of factotum friend who propels the plot forward;
- changes the end, so that the two lovers die together (kind of).
Now, n. 5 is not so terrible, (Gounod and Bellini did that as well, and I understand it); 3 and 4 are due to brevity, but the rest is completely insane. He cuts the best scenes, those that make more sense from a dramatic point of view, the scenes which would turn out better when set in music! Whatever.
As it is an almost completely unknown opera, I’ll talk a bit about the music, and these of course are only my own personal impressions. Zingarelli sits firmly in the classicist eighteenth century tradition: he was born shortly before Mozart, but outlived him 46 years; when he died, Rossini had withdrawn from the stage, Bellini (Zingarelli’s student) was already dead, and Donizetti had just composted Lucia di Lammermoor. In such a creative and innovative period, he, unperturbed, kept writing Italian opera seria in eighteenth century style, and now nobody performs them anymore.
His music sounds at times like Haydn or early Mozart, sometimes even Rossini. It’s very pleasant, and honestly there is no reason that this opera should not enter the standard repertoire nowadays. I really liked it, I must say. The structure is very classical, recitativi (secchi and accompagnati) and arias, with very few ensemble moments. It still follows the baroque paradigm.
- Romeo: Franco Fagioli (countertenor)
- Giulietta: Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano)
- Gilberto: Xavier Sabata (countertenor)
- Everardo, Giulietta’s father: Bogdan Mihai (tenor)
- Matilde, Giulietta’s confidante: Irini Karaianni (mezzo-soprano)
- Teobaldo: Juan Sancho (tenor)
As you can see, the whole opera is sung with a very narrow range of notes: I believe it’s the first opera I watch which doesn’t feature a bass.
The opera starts with the party at the Capulets’ house, and Romeo arriving incognito. Fagioli immediately played the Diva. As in all concert performances, the singers entered the stage right before the conductor, and sit down, but not our hero. He remained in the back stage, because he wanted his ENTRANCE. He kept doing that for the whole evening: every time the character was supposed to exit the stage, he, instead of sitting in his chair like everybody else, went backstage and then did his triumphal entrance again. A part from this, he sang very well.
Ann Hallenberg was simply fantastic. She is a Swedish mezzo, a Handel specialist, and she was really inspired. Her technique is flawless, her voice is warm and round, with very easy coloratura. But the main thing was that she really was inside the character, she really gave an emotional and felt interpretation. She had two big arias; the one in the first act is very beautiful, it brings memories of Rossini, and Hallenberg exploded in the coloratura in a very enticing manner. The one in the second act is a grand’aria in a style closer to Haydn, or early Mozart. She was really enthralling.
I had already heard Fagioli in a concert in Paris; yesterday he convinced me a bit less. His voice is truly beautiful, very smooth, especially for a countertenor. He is the only countertenor I’ve ever heard with a true Italian voice. He really reminds me of LaBartoli, in his voice emission. He was very good, very effective in the coloratura, and he clearly made an effort towards a correct interpretation, in the recitativi and so on, but he felt a bit cold to me. In his final aria (which is the only one surviving in modern recordings), Ombra adorata aspetta, I perceived his singing as a bit overemphatic, a bit pompous. Let’s be clear: he performed it beautifully, and I applauded him heartily. I have the feeling he was having a not perfect night, maybe.
Among the best things in the score we find the two duets between Giulietta and Romeo, truly remarkable. Sometimes they remind you of the duets between the two sisters in Così fan tutte; Fagioli and Hallenberg have two voices which fit together nicely, and the result was superb.
Xavier Sabata is a more “traditional” countertenor, with respect to Fagioli. His voice is beautiful and high, a bit metallic but not annoyingly so. Extremely good in the recitativi, he has a couple of arias which are unfortunately a bit boring. Not his fault, he really made an effort. The same I’d say about Irini Karaianni: her voice is smooth and beautiful, but her arias were a bit boring.
Bogdan Mihai is a young Rumanian tenor, a rising Rossini tenor star: his voice is a bit white for my taste, even if it has good projection. I have the feeling he places the voice right behind the nose, rather than smack in the head. He had a difficult flamboyant aria, and he performed very well. I would gladly listen to him again.
I had already heard Juan Sancho in Lausanne, in Ariodante, and he confirmed the good impression. In this case I liked him even better, his voice even more projected and full of presence, almost a big voice. But still very high, and light, elegant, perfectly set. Unfortunately his part is very short (he gets killed at the end of act one), he has only one aria, but with fireworks! I found him very convincing also in the recitativi. Comparing with Lausanne, I would say that he came out better, in an opera in concert form: there were no curtains to cling to, and so a less distracting performance.
The Armonia Atenea orchestra and chorus is a Greek baroque ensemble, conducted by George Petrou. I had the feeling they were too loud and boisterous (I realize I have found all orchestra loud and boisterous, in the last few reviews, maybe it’s me?). Especially the cellos and the double bass were giving a thrashing to their poor instruments with fierce wickedness. I understand that if the score says FF and you are playing a baroque cello, it’s easy to hit the instrument with the bow and get a “woody” blow sound, but it was BAM BAM BAM BAM all the time, I found them really a bit coarse. This was not all the time though; my feeling is that the problem was technical, and not of interpretation, or direction. In other moments the orchestra was elegant and careful, and globally the experience was good.
The all-male chorus did a great job, with wonderful attacks and phrasing.
What can I say? I don’t know if I wish that this opera would become a standard in the opera seasons. The cut of the best Shakespeare’s scenes is unforgivable in my opinion, but the music is beautiful. Moreover, the recovery of this kind of repertoire would provide an outlet for the armies of countertenors roaming the world these days, who are starting to invade also the Rossini an Mozart territory 🙂