The setup: You can hear the haste in Vincenzo Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues (1830), whose libretto is a maladroit rewrite of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by someone who should have known better, the master of 19-century opera stories, Felice Romani. The Bard was horribly ill-served by most opera adaptations until Verdi set him right.
Bellini signed his contract for Venice's La Fenice in late January, 1830, and by March the opera was premiered. He didn't like to write fast, but time was money, so he borrowed some tunes from his previous opera, the unsuccessful Zaira, and picked through his student composition, Adelson e Salvini. The musical patchwork is uneven, but his distinctive dramatic style and those spinning melodies, which would make his fame and fortune a bit later in masterpieces La Sonnambula, Norma, and I Puritani, poke through the pedestrian and bloom ever fresh. Great swathes of Act II seem to be a completely different opera, for here is heard the mature Bellini, whose music even prickly Wagner had to commend for its "heart."
The execution: Under maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo, Opera in the Heights does wonders with this bel canto opera rarity. He coaxes transparency from the chorus, an exemplary cast of principals, and the orchestra (the horn and clarinet solos from Debra Rathke and Patricia Carde were this side of heavenly). He brings fire to the "War, War" chants (shades of Norma's Druids), sizzles slowly during the love duets, delivers a sterling "Funeral Scene" with standout support from sopranos Traci Davis and mezzo Patricia Bernstein as nuns whose musical line floats ethereally above the male chorus, and then heats up the pathos for the Tomb Scene. His passion for the score is apparent.
He carries that flame to the singers. In a throwback to earlier opera forms, Romeo is a pants role and sung by a mezzo. Sarah Heltzel makes a very handsome young man, ardent and sleek, and handy with a rapier. Her rich, powerhouse voice travels high to low without strain, and is equally supple too, scaling with effortless grace those essential vocal arabesques of which the nineteen-century ear was so enamored. (In Romani's poorly executed adaptation, Juliet's torn between Romeo and duty to her father Capellio. The couple's ecstatic love-at-first-sight meeting at the ball has been excised, and Juliet's now betrothed to Tebaldo [Tybalt] in a forced love triangle, draining the first act of Shakespeare's marvelous stage know-how.) As envoy for the Montagues, Romeo is dignified in "Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio," where he laments killing Capulet's son in battle, then bursts into a searing cabaletta where he vows revenge when his marriage proposal is rebuffed by his enemy. Heltzel chewed up this double-aria. Throughout, she was never less than first-class.
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While a few of her stratospheric high notes went fleetingly askew, soprano Camille Zamora, as conflicted Giulietta, was nearly as smooth. Her soprano is appealingly dark and agile, with heft behind it, and she's a talented actress. Giuietta's famous romanza, "O quante volte" (a take on "Romeo, wherefore art thou") which begins over haunting harp and horn accompaniment, was rhapsodic. Her voice melded beautifully with Heltzel's in their duets -- with those patented Bellini harmonic thirds -- and their Death Scene was terrifically evocative.
Sweet-singing tenor Lázaro Calderón, previously heard at OH in Trovatore and Anna Bolena, brought his burnished silvery tone to Tebaldo's famous cavatina "È serbata a questo acciaro," where he vows to avenge Romeo's killing of Capulet's son. Later he soared in the fiery confrontation with Heltzel's Romeo in the second act, "Stolto! a un sol mio grido," which is brought to a poignant hush by Giuietta's funeral procession. It's a highpoint of the opera, emphasizing the chorus -- another Bellini signpost -- while Romeo, in counterpoint, exclaims his grief.
The supporting roles were lovingly handled, with Justin Hopkins' well-deep bass-baritone an aural treat as physician Lorenzo, who supplies the sleeping potion to Juliet, but is kept from informing Romeo by the thugs of Capulet. Lord Capulet, who doesn't have much to do except explode in rage over vile Montagues or seethe over his daughter's intransigence, was ably sung by bass Daymon Passmore. At the stirring end to Act I, Bellini supplies a sublime quintet. Romeo has blurted out his love for Giuietta, and time literally stops for each of the characters as they react to the impossible situation. Bellini spins out melody as if he were weaving gold. It's a most splendid showstopper.
The verdict: Sung and conducted with passion, adorned with the velvets of costumer Dena Scheh, and directed by Carlos Conde, who adds some spicy girl-on-girl ardor for the two sopranos, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi may be rare in the opera house, but it's right at home at OH. Bellini's sixth opera about R&J runs through November 18 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. An alternate Emerald cast (with Julia Ebner as Giulietta, Brandy Lynn Hawkins as Romeo, Zachary Averyt as Tebaldo) performs November 9, 16, and 18.