Following the poor reception which Zaira received in Parma, Bellini returned to Milan by the end of June 1829 with no contract for another opera in sight. Giovanni Pacini, another Catanese composer, was still in Milan after the well-received premiere of his Il Talismano, and he received offers to compose an opera for both Turin and Venice for the following Carnival season. He accepted both offers, but the La Fenice impresario, Alessandro Lanari, included a proviso that if he were to be unable to fulfill the Venice contract, then it would be transferred to Bellini.
A firm offer of a contract for a new opera for Venice appeared in the autumn, a contract which also included a provision that Il pirata would also be given during the 1830 Carnival season. By mid-December Bellini was in Venice where he heard the same singers who were to perform in Pirata: they were Giuditta Grisi, the tenor Lorenzo Bonfigli, and Giulio Pellegrini.
Bellini in Venice
With rehearsals for Pirata underway in late December, Bellini was given notice by Lanari that it was doubtful whether Pacini would be present in time to stage an opera and that a contract was to be prepared for Bellini to provide a new opera but with the proviso that it would only become effective on 14 January. Accepting the offer on 5 January, Bellini stated that he would set Romani's libretto for Giulietta Capellio, that he required 45 days between receipt of the libretto and the first performance, and that he would accept 325 napoleoni d'oro (about 8,000 lire).
The tentative contract deadline was extended until 20 January, but by that date Romani was in Venice, having already re-worked much of his earlier libretto which he had written for Nicola Vaccai's 1825 opera, Giulietta e Romeo, the source for which was the play of the same name by Luigi Scevola in 1818. The two men set to work, but with the winter weather in Venice becoming increasingly bad, Bellini fell ill; however, he had to continue to work under great pressure within a now-limited timetable. Eventually, revisions to Romani's libretto were agreed to, a new title was given to the work, and Bellini reviewed his score of Zaira to see how some of the music could be set to the new text, but composing the part of Romeo for Grisi. He also took Giulietta’s "Oh quante volte" and Nelly’s romanza from Adelson e Salvini. The Giulietta was to be sung by Rosalbina Caradori-Allan.
In Venice to prepare the local première of Il pirata with Giuditta Grisi as Imogene, Bellini wrote I Capuleti in a month and a half (starting about 20 January), writing the part of Romeo for Grisi. Her presence, together with a relatively weak male singers in the company, may have conditioned the choice of subject. Giulietta was sung by Maria Caterina Rosalbina Caradori-Allan, Tebaldo by Lorenzo Bonfigli and Lorenzo by Ranieri Pocchini Cavalieri. Bellini had intended the part of Lorenzo for a bass, but in act 1 of the autograph score he transposed it for tenor, and in act 2 the part is written in the tenor clef throughout. Although these changes were possibly for Senigallia who sang the role in the summer of 1830. Cavalieri, the singer at the première, appears to have been a tenor. However, published scores and most performances assign the role to a bass.
Bellini thoroughly reworked nine melodies from his unsuccessful Zaira into I Capuleti e i Montecchi: he explained that "Zaira, hissed at Parma, was avenged by I Capuleti". In addition, Giulietta’s "Oh quante volte" in act 1 uses Nelly’s romanza, "Dopo l’oscuro nembo" from Adelson e Salvini, written for Naples in 1825.
At the premiere of I Capuleti e i Montecchi on 11 March 1830 success for Bellini returned. Weinstock describes the premiere as "an unclouded and immediate success" but it was only able to be performed eight times before the La Fenice season closed on 21 March. A local newspaper, I Teatri, reported that "all things considered, this opera by Bellini has aroused as much enthusiasm in Venice as La straniera aroused in Milan from the first evening on".
By this time, Bellini knew that he had achieved fame: writing on 28 March, he stated that:
My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world...and with the greatest enthusiasm.
Before leaving Venice, Bellini was offered a contract to produce another new opera for La Fenice for the 1830—31 Carnival season, and—upon his return to Milan—he also found an offer from Genoa for a new opera but proposed for the same time period, an offer he was forced to reject.
Later that year, Bellini prepared a version of Capuleti for La Scala which was given on 26 December, lowering Giulietta’s part for the mezzo-soprano Amalia Schütz-Oldosi.
Early librettos divide the opera into four parts. At Bologna in 1832 Maria Malibran replaced the last part with the tomb scene from the final act of Vaccai's Giulietta e Romeo, a tradition followed by other contralto Romeos. (Vaccai's scene is included as an appendix to Ricordi's vocal score). This version was performed in 1833 in Paris and London on 20 July with Giuditta Pasta as Romeo. In Florence the following year, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis restored Bellini's ending. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient's singing as Romeo in Leipzig in 1834 and Magdeburg in 1835 created a profound impression on the young Wagner.
Very quickly after the premiere, performances began to be given all over Italy in about thirty different productions up to 1835. It continued to see seen fairly regularly until the end of the 1860s. Details of European productions, which were numerous and which began in Dresden on 1 October 1831, continued into the 1840s. The opera was first staged in the UK on 20 July 1833 and in the US on 4 April 1837 at the St Charles Theatre in New Orleans; later, first US performances were given in Boston on 13 May 1847 and in New York on 28 January 1848.
20th century and beyond
I Capuleti was revived in 1935, the centenary of Bellini’s death, at Catania and it appeared in 1954 at Palermo, with Giulietta Simionato as Romeo and Rosanna Carteri as Giulietta. In 1958 it was broadcast live by RAI from Rome, conducted by Lorin Maazel, with Fiorenza Cossotto and Antonietta Pastori in the main roles. In 1966 Claudio Abbado prepared a version for La Scala in which Romeo was sung by a tenor, Giacomo Aragall; the cast included Renata Scotto and Margherita Rinaldi alternating in the role of Giulietta and Luciano Pavarotti as Tebaldo. This version was also performed in Amsterdam, Rome and Philadelphia and at the 1967 Edinburgh Festival, but it is no longer used.
Modern day productions have been mounted fairly frequently, with 102 performances of 27 productions given (or to be given) in 24 cities since 1 January 2011 and forward into 2015. A San Francisco Opera production opened on 29 September 2012 featuring Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato as the lovers, and both singers were part of a Lyric Opera of Kansas City production in September 2013.
On 28 September 2014, Washington Concert Opera will present a concert performance of the work with Kate Lindsey as Romeo, Nicole Cabell as Giulietta, and David Portillo as Tebaldo, while it will be staged at the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania in October. Other performances to be given include Fabio Biondi conducting his ensemble Europa Galante on period instruments at Teatro Flavio Vespasiano in Rieti.
In this version of the story the Capuleti and Montecchi are rival political factions (Guelph and Ghibelline respectively) rather than Shakespeare's "two households, both alike in dignity". Capellio is the father of Giulietta (Juliet) and the leader of the Capuleti. Giulietta is betrothed to Tebaldo (Tybalt), however she has already met and fallen in love with Romeo, leader of the Montecchi. This is a secret to all but Lorenzo (Lawrence), her doctor and confidant. Complicating matters, Romeo has inadvertently killed the son of Capellio (Giulietta's brother) in battle.
Place: around the palace of Capellio (Capulet) in Verona
Time: 13th century
Scene 1: The Palace
Capellio and Tebaldo address their followers advising rejection of an offer of peace to be brought by an envoy from Romeo, the man who had killed Capellio's son. Tebaldo states that he will avenge the killing to celebrate his marriage to Giulietta: (Aria, È serbata a questo acciaro / "And reserved for this sword / is the vengeance of your blood") and he urges Capellio to hasten the moment when he may marry Giulietta and then avenge Capellio, who wants the marriage to take place immediately, brushing aside the objections of Lorenzo that Giulietta is ill with a fever. Tebaldo proclaims his love for Guilietta: Sì: M'Abbraccia / "I love her so much / She is so dear to me". Capellio's men urge him on and arrangements are made to have the wedding take place that day.
While the men proclaim their hatred of the Montagues, Romeo enters in the guise of a Montague envoy, offering peace to be guaranteed by the marriage of Romeo and Giulietta. He explains that Romeo regrets the death of Capellio's son (Ascolta: Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio / "Listen: If Romeo killed your son / he brought him death in battle / And you must blame fate"), and offers to take his place as a second son for the old man. Capellio indicates that Tebaldo has already taken on that role and—together with all his men—rejects all idea of peace: "War! War", the men proclaim. Romeo accepts their challenge of war: (Cabaletta: La tremenda ultrice spada/ "Romeo will prepare to brandish the dread avenging sword / Romeo accepts your challenge of war.)
Scene 2: Giulietta's room
Giulietta enters proclaiming her frustration against all the wedding preparations which she sees about her. Recitative: "I burn, a fire consumes me wholly. In vain do I seek solace from the winds... Where are you Romeo?". Romanza: Oh! quante volte / "Oh how many times do I weep and beg heaven for you". Lorenzo enters, explaining that he has arranged for Romeo to come to her by a secret door and, when Romeo enters, he tries to persuade Giulietta to escape with him. Aria, Romeo: Sì, fuggire: a noi non resta / "Yes, flee, for us there is no other escape"; this becomes a duet as he demands: "What power is greater for you than love?", but she resists in the name of duty, law, and honour, declaring that she would prefer to die of a broken heart. Romeo is distraught: aria, Romeo: Ah crudel, d'onor ragioni / "Oh cruel one, you speak of honour when you were stolen from me?" Giulietta responds "Ah what more you ask of me?", then, in a duet finale in which each expresses his/her conflicting emotions, the situation becoming more and more impossible for them both.
The sounds of wedding preparations are heard: she urges him to flee; he declares that he will stay and, in a final duet in which Romeo pleads "Come, ah Come! Rely on me", Giulietta continues to resist. Each leaves.
Scene 3: Another part of the palace
The Capuleti are celebrating the forthcoming marriage. All those assembled join in. Romeo enters in disguise and tells Lorenzo, who immediately recognises him, that he is awaiting the support of his soldiers, one thousand of whom are assembled dressed as Ghibelines and who are intent on preventing the wedding. Lorenzo remonstrates with her, but suddenly, the armed attack by the Montecchi take place as they surge into the palace, Romeo with them. Giulietta is alone, lamenting the state of affairs. Aria: Qual fuoco / "What fire". Then she sees Romeo, who has appeared, and again he urges her to run away with him: "I ask this in the name of promised love", he declares. Capellio, Tebaldo and the Ghibelines discover them, and believe that Romeo is still the Montecchi envoy. As Giulietta tries to shield him from her father, he proudly tells them his true name. The Montagues enter to protect him and, in a concerted finale involving all from both factions, the lovers are separated by their family members, finally proclaiming: Al furor che si ridesta / "If all hope of ever seeing each other again in life / this will not be the last farewell". Capellio, Tebaldo, and Lorenzo become part of the quintet finale, as the ranks of the supporters of both sides join in the swell.
Scene 1: Another part of the Palace
Introduced by an arioso for cello, Giulietta awaits news of the fighting. Lorenzo enters and immediately tells her that Romeo lives, but she will soon be taken away to Tebaldo's castle. He offers a solution: that she must take a sleeping potion which will make it appear that she has died. She will then be taken to her family's tomb where he will arrange for Romeo and himself to be present when she awakes. In a state of indecision, she contemplates her options. (Cavatina: Morte io non temo, il sai / "You know that I do not fear death, / I have always asked death of you...") and she expresses doubts while Lorenzo urges to take the potion, given that her father is about to come into the room. Taking the bottle, she declares that "only death can wrest me from my cruel father".
With his followers, Capellio comes to order her to leave with Tebaldo at dawn. Her ladies beg her father to be kinder towards her. Proclaiming that she is close to death, she begs her father's forgiveness: Ah! non poss'io partire / "Ah, I cannot leave without your forgiveness.....Let your anger turn just once to peace", but Capellio rejects her and orders her to her room. He then instructs his men to keep watch on Lorenzo of whom he is suspicious; they are ordered not to allow Lorenzo to have contact with anyone.
Scene 2: The grounds of the palace
An orchestral introduction precedes Romeo's entrance and introduces what Weinstock describes as "his bitter recitative", Deserto è il loco / "This place is abandoned", in which he laments Lorenzo's apparent forgetfulness in failing to meet him as planned. He then hears the noise of someone entering. It is Tebaldo, and the two men begin an angry duet (Tebaldo: Stolto! a un sol mio grido / "With one cry a thousand men will arrive". Romeo: "I scorn you. You will wish the alps and the sea stood between us"). As they are about to begin fighting, the sound of a funeral procession is heard (Pace alla tua bell'anima). They stop and listen, only then realising that it a procession for Giulietta. In a duet finale, the rivals are united in remorse, asking each other for death as they continue to fight.
Scene 3: The tombs of the Capuleti
Along with his Montecchi followers, Romeo enters the tomb of the Capuleti. The followers mourn Giulietta's death. At her tomb and in order to bid her farewell, Romeo asks for it to be opened. He also asks that the Montecchi leave him alone with Giulietta: Aria: Deh! tu, bell'anima / "Alas! You, fair soul / Rising up to heaven / turn to me, bear me with you". Realising his only course of action will be death, he swallows poison and, laying down beside her, he hears a sigh, then the sound of her voice. Giulietta wakes up to find that Romeo knew nothing of her simulated death and had been unaware of Lorenzo's plan. Urging him to leave with her, Giulietta gets up but Romeo states that he must remain there forever, explaining that he has already acted to end his life. In a final duet, the couple clings to each other. Then he dies and Giulietta, unable to live on without him, falls dead onto his body. The Capuleti and Montecchi rush in to discover the dead lovers, with Capellio demanding who is responsible: "You, ruthless man", they all proclaim.
Musicologist Mary Ann Smart has examined the issue of Bellini's "borrowings" and she notes: "Bellini's famously scrupulous attitude to the matching of music and poetry did not prevent him from borrowing from himself almost as frequently as did the notoriously economical Handel and Rossini." Specifically, in regard to I Capuleti, she continues:
Bellini lost no time in rescuing much of [Zaira'
s] material, reusing no fewer than eight numbers in his next opera. The music that had failed so completely in Parma was acclaimed in Venice in its new guise, probably more because the Venice audience was inherently better disposed to Bellini's style than because of any aesthetic improvement. But if we can take Bellini at his word, the extensive self-borrowing involved in recasting Zaira
as I Capuleti
was no lazy response to a looming deadline: although he was indeed forced to compose faster than he liked, he remarked repeatedly on how hard he was working, on one occasion complaining that the act 1 finale of Capuleti
—one of the numbers copied almost literally from Zaira
had nearly "driven him crazy." The sheer volume of common material in these two operas ensures that dramatic resemblance between the recycled melodies in I Capuleti
and their original incarnations in Zaira
will be the exception rather than the rule.
Smart then provides one specific example whereby word metering (the number of syllables for each line, traditionally written in a specific meter by the poet—the librettist—of from five to eight or more to each line of verse) is changed to work in the new context:
What are we to make of Bellini's decision to bring back the cabaletta for the prima donna soprano in Zaira
, a number whose prevailing sentiment is giddy anticipation of an imminent wedding, as Romeo's lamenting slow movement in the last act of I Capuleti
, sung over Juliet's inanimate body? Not only is one of Bellini's most frivolous soprano cabalettas pressed into service as a monologue confronting death, but the number is transferred from the female to the male lead (although both roles are sung by female voices, since the role of Romeo is written for a mezzo-soprano). And as if to emphasize the violence of the transformation, the poetic texts are in different verse meters—Zaira's cabaletta in settenari
, Romeo's in the less common quinari
The means by which Bellini and Romani stretched Romeo's quinari
lines to fit a melody originally conceived for settenari
is ingenious, achieved simply by inserting word repetitions between the second and third syllables of each line.