Magazine article The Spectator

Bellicose Bellini

Magazine article The Spectator

Bellicose Bellini

Article excerpt

I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Royal Opera

Education Double Bill


Of all the painfully premature deaths of composers, there can't be any doubt that Schubert's is the least endurable. Shatteringly great as his finest works are, one can envisage him striking out on new paths and taking his place beside his adored Beethoven. Mozart is the other most obvious candidate in this macabre competition, but he composed so many supreme masterworks, and there is even a sense of completeness about his oeuvre which there isn't about Schubert's. I imagine few music lovers, outside the highly specialised group of bel canto fans, would nominate Bellini even in the first ten, but it always strikes me, witnessing the giant strides he made in the course of a career that ended when he was 33, in 1835, that the impressiveness of his last work, I Puritani, is so much greater than that of any of his previous ones, including Norma, wonderful as that is, that if he had gone on for a few more years he might not only have been the greatest Italian operatic composer, but he might have realigned the position of Italian opera vis-à-vis the musical traditions and practices of other countries. One can certainly imagine Wagner's being far more influenced by him than he was able to be in the light of what Bellini actually achieved.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini's version of the Romeo and Juliet story, comes from five years before his death, and on the rare occasions when I have heard adequate accounts of it I have felt that its finest passages are not only dramatically masterly, but that the music which conveys the drama is so individual and so moving as to put Bellini into quite a different class from his contemporary countrymen. On the other hand, the weak passages are as routine, almost, as much Donizetti.

The heroic side of his music was developing more slowly than the lyric-melancholy and ecstatic sides. There is notable progress in Norma, and in I Puritani he is getting all the way there. But in Capuleti there is, beginning with its perfunctory, endlessly forgettable Overture, altogether too much generic bellicose noisiness, and that recurs in the confrontational scenes later. What we go to it for is the scenes for the lovers, and they can rarely have been more poignant or more nearly joyous -- Bellini is careful to deny them any real present joy -- than the pair in the latest revival of Pier Luigi Pizzi's 1984 production at the Royal Opera, but so far as I remember hardly changed, by Massimo Gasparon. …

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