The Capulets and the Montagues

Music by Vincenzo Bellini

Libretto by Felice Romani


The tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet inspired some of Shakespeare's finest verse—and some of Bellini's most beautiful melodies. "An opera of definite dramatic appeal" (The New York Times) awash in "music of extraordinary grace" (All Music Guide), this bel canto masterpiece features international stars Joyce DiDonato, a singer of "glamour, charisma, intelligence, grace and remarkable talent," and Nicole Cabell, who "wields her radiant lyric soprano like a silken lasso" (The New York Times). Saimir Pirgu, praised by Opera News as "a tenor to watch," brings his "honeyed tenor" (The New York Times) to his debut role as Tebaldo. Costumes are by world-renowned fashion designer Christian Lacroix; set designer Vincent Lemaire has created "dramatically powerful visual statements" (Opera Today) for the production; director Vincent Boussard "effectively underscores the claustrophobic, helpless situation of both lovers" (Opera News). Riccardo Frizza, praised by The New Yorker for his "crisp and idiomatic conducting," leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production with Bavarian State Opera

Production photos: Cory Weaver 

Audio excerpts are from the September 21, 1991 performance of The Capulets and the Montagues with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano.


Giulietta Nicole Cabell *
Romeo Joyce DiDonato
Tebaldo Saimir Pirgu *
Lorenzo Ao Li
Capellio Eric Owens

Production Credits

Conductor Riccardo Frizza
Director Vincent Boussard *
Set Designer Vincent Lemaire *
Costume Designer Christian Lacroix *
Lighting Designer Guido Levi *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera Debut




Scene 1 – Supporters of the Capulets gather at Capellio’s palace, anticipating new fighting with the Montagues, their traditional enemies. Capellio informs them that Romeo, the leader of the Montagues, is sending an ambassador to offer peace. Lorenzo, the family physician and friend of the Capulets, tries to persuade Capellio that a pact to end their long rivalry could be useful and honorable, and reminds him that enough blood has already been shed. Capellio, however, scorns the idea and vows to avenge the death of his son whom Romeo killed in battle. Since Romeo left Verona as a boy, none of the Capulets recognize him, although there had been rumors that he has entered Verona several times. Tebaldo, a partisan of the Capulets, vows to avenge Capellio’s son, swearing in the name of Giulietta, Capellio’s daughter, whom he loves. Capellio suggests they be married that very day. Lorenzo pleads with him that Giulietta is ill, but Capellio refuses to change his mind. Tebaldo expresses his love for Giulietta while Capellio sends Lorenzo to prepare Giulietta for her marriage. The ambassador from the Montagues, Romeo in disguise, enters and offers peace and friendship between the two families, a pledge to be sealed by Romeo’s marriage to Giulietta. He tells of Romeo’s sadness over the death of Capellio’s son and explains that Capellio will find another son in Romeo. Capellio informs him that his daughter is already promised to Tebaldo. The Capulets demand war, and Romeo accepts the challenge.


Scene 2 – Giulietta reflects on the contrast between the joyful preparations for her wedding and her own misery. She longs to be with Romeo. Lorenzo enters with Romeo, whom he has brought into the palace through a secret entrance. Romeo tries to persuade Giulietta to flee with him since it is their only change to be together. Giulietta, despite her love for Romeo, cannot desert her family. Music is heard in the distance signaling the beginning of the wedding festivities. Again, Romeo begs her to leave with him, but Giulietta again refuses. Defeated, Romeo leaves.


Scene 3 – Guests gather for the wedding and proclaim their happiness over the impending marriage. Romeo, still disguised, enters with Lorenzo, who warns him that his disguise will not conceal his identity. Romeo vows that he will not let Tebaldo marry his beloved and tells Lorenzo that his followers have infiltrated the palace, planning to stop the wedding. Fighting is heard. Romeo leaves to join his forces and Lorenzo departs. Giulietta enters alone, happy at the interruption but despondent over the fighting. As she prays for Romeo’s protection, he appears and again pleads with her to escape with him, but she refuses. Capellio and Tebaldo enter, recognize Romeo as the enemy ambassador, and ask him to identify himself. Romeo replies that his is Tebaldo’s rival. The Montagues rush in, calling for Romeo, while the Capulets appear in pursuit of the Montagues. The Capulets now realize Romeo has deceived them. The two families exchange accusations and threats of further battles while Romeo and Giulietta pray that they will meet again, if only in heaven.




Scene 1 – Giulietta laments the fate of Romeo and her kinsmen. Lorenzo enters to tell her that Romeo is safe, but that she will be sent to Tebaldo’s castle. He is prepared to help her, however, and offers her a potion that will induce a death-like sleep. She will be taken to her family tomb, where Lorenzo and Romeo will come to her. She is confused and afraid, but quickly drinks the potion as Capellio enters. He orders her to prepare to accompany Tebaldo at dawn. Already weak from the potion, Giulietta begs forgiveness from him and faints.


Scene 2 – In a deserted spot near Capellio’s palace, Romeo is alone, uncertain where to turn. Tebaldo suddenly appears and they exchange threats. As their duel begins, Giulietta’s funeral procession appears. Both are shocked. Romeo begs Tebaldo to kill him, but Tebaldo, full of remorse, cannot.

Scene 3 – The Montagues enter the tomb of the Capulets with Romeo, who places a rose on Giulietta’s tomb. Seeing Giulietta, Romeo desperately pleads for her to awaken. He tells his followers to leave him alone for a few moments, and they depart. Romeo pours out his grief, begging that she take him with her to heaven. In desperation he poisons himself. At the same moment, Giulietta awakens and explains what has happened to the incredulous Romeo, but it is too late. He responds, “I must stay here for eternity.” Giulietta, realizing what he has done, begs to die with him and asks for his dagger; Romeo refuses. She then asks for poison but Romeo tells her he has none left. As he exhorts her to live, she prays to heaven to cut her life short. Romeo dies and Giulietta falls lifeless beside him. The Montagues and Capulets, with Cappelio and Lorenzo, enter and find the dead lovers. Capellio cries out, “Killed! By whom?” All reply, “By you, ruthless man.”

Fateful and Fragile Love

Scott Foglesong

When Vincenzo Bellini arrived in Venice in mid-December 1829 to oversee La Fenice’s production of his 1827 Milan hit Il Pirata, he may still have been smarting from the recent drubbing administered to Zaira, his rather hastily-conceived opera that had been the young composer’s first out-and-out flop.

An anonymous handbill had shown up on the streets of Parma immediately following Zaira’s premiere at the new Teatro Ducale: “Anyone who finds the musical inspiration of signor Bellini is besought to take it to the box office of signor Bandini, the impresario, and he will be treated courteously.” That must have hurt.
Boom-and-bust being ever the nature of the theatrical beast, Bellini appears to have taken his punishment in stride. There was no particular reason for him to fret; his rise so far had been meteoric and despite youth and inexperience he was in steady demand throughout Italy. His reputation was blossoming. His fees were escalating. His was a charmed life. As of 1829 there could have been no hint that it was also destined to be tragically short.

Portrait of Vincenzo Bellini
Courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Born in Catania, Sicily in 1801 to a poor, sprawling, yet tightly-knit family, Bellini was raised and educated in music by his grandfather, a local church musician who gave him perhaps more practical experience than solid technique. When Vincenzo came of age in 1819 he was packed off to Naples, where he entered the Real Collegio di Musica, a state-run academy. Master teacher Nicolò Zingarelli had such confidence in Bellini’s rapidly evolving gifts that he determined that Vincenzo’s graduation opera would be performed in public by Conservatorio students. The resulting Adelson e Salvini—a soapy trifle set in an Irish castle—turned out to be the sleeper hit of 1825 and became a Sunday afternoon staple for the rest of the year. Adelson’s surprise success led to Bellini’s receiving a commission from Naples’ imposing Teatro San Carlo for a full-length opera. Bianca e Fernando was premiered in May 1826. When Bianca followed in Adelson’s footsteps by becoming a hit, Vincenzo Bellini had indubitably arrived, not only as a professional composer but also—thanks in part to his golden-boy good looks—a sought-after presence in posh Neapolitan salons.
Bellini skipped nimbly past the usual gauntlet of provincial theaters, threadbare productions, and semi-starvation that was the usual lot of the neophyte Italian opera composer. Instead, he bounded straight to the top. The agent of his rocket-propelled rise was the roughshod, shady, yet solidly reliable impresario Domenico Barbaia who, together with several equally dicey confederates, managed both the San Carlo and Milan’s La Scala. Even if the semi-literate Barbaia’s overriding motivation was money—he ran the lobby casinos that subsidized Italian opera productions off and on until about 1820—his taste was impeccable and his nose for talent was keen. The exact details are lacking, but it’s clear enough that Barbaia snapped up the sparkling young Sicilian with a contract for a show scheduled for October 1827 at La Scala. By April Bellini was in Milan, working industriously on his new project while networking and cultivating contacts. The most significant of those was Felice Romani (1788–1865), a Genoese poet and librettist whose portfolio included collaborations with every leading operatic light of the day, including Rossini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Pacini, Mercadante, and Vaccai. Between 1827 and 1833, when their partnership ended in quarrels, Romani and Bellini would collaborate on La Straniera, Zaira, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, Norma, and Beatrice di Tenda.
And Bellini’s La Scala debut, Il Pirata, which was a resounding success, surely aided by the mega-wattage of vocal effulgence on stage: Henriette Méric-Lalande, Giovanni Battista Rubini, and Antonio Tamburini. It marked the definite arrival of Bellini’s unique compositional voice, in particular the liquid and fragrantly ornamented bel canto line—a style of singing stressing ease, purity, and evenness of tone production and an agile and precise vocal technique that was to influence so many Romantic composers, including Frédéric Chopin. Bellini was fully aware of the magnitude of his accomplishment. In a letter to his uncle he exulted: “My parents and relations can rejoice together; your nephew has had the good fortune to produce such a success with his opera that he does not know how to put it into words.”

Giulietta (Cecilia Gasdia) meets Romeo (Delores Ziegler) in the Company’s 1991 production.
Photo by Marty Sohl
In the afterglow of Il Pirata’s starburst, Bellini went back to La Scala for another go at bottling lightning: La Straniera, a barely coherent but attractively creepy Gothic tale that inspired Bellini to fashion a brilliantly radical score. Despite its emphasis on austere declamation over lyric numbers, La Straniera delighted Milanese audiences. Then came May 16, the Teatro Ducale in Parma, and Zaira. Romani dawdled at fashioning a workable libretto from Voltaire’s tragedy. Bellini seemed emotionally disconnected from the project, even distracted. The audience included a grumpy contingent with a bone to pick over the chosen libretto. Zaira died, but at least it bequeathed its best parts to posterity. Bellini would mine it extensively for his next opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the happy byproduct of his December 1829 trip to Venice to oversee the production of Il Pirata.
The management of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice had good reason to suspect that the ailing composer Giovanni Pacini would be unable to deliver his setting of Romani’s proposed Giulietta Capellio for the 1829 Carnival season, so they secured a proactive, just-in-case contract with Bellini. That was a smart move. Pacini never showed up and the opera—now a six-week rush job—landed in Bellini’s lap. There was no time for Romani to write a new libretto, so he dusted off his 1825 Giulietta e Romeo for Nicola Vaccai. The equally pressed Bellini ransacked his earlier operas for appropriate material, not only the hapless Zaira but reaching as far back as Adelson e Salvini. It was an exhausting sprint for both of them, exacerbated no doubt by dreadful winter weather that contributed to Bellini’s nasty attack of “sudden bilious gastric inflammatory fever”—an ominous precursor of the dysentery that would kill him five years later.
The enervating trial of its composition notwithstanding, I Capuleti e i Montecchi erased any lingering memory of Zaira’s failure with a triumphant premiere on March 11, capped three days later by the Venetians treating Bellini to a torch-lit parade complete with military band banging out hit tunes from the show. But not all were amused. Hector Berlioz was passing through Florence when I Capuleti was playing at the Pergola Theater. He entered the Pergola practically salivating at the prospect of an evening spent in communion with his beloved Shakespeare. He left the Pergola spitting tacks. “Bitter disappointment! No ball at the Capulets’, no Mercutio…no Shakespeare, nothing—a wasted opportunity,” he fulminated in his Memoires, eviscerating “this wretched libretto carved out of Shakespeare’s great play.”
Berlioz was unaware that Romani’s libretto had little if anything to do with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—a common misconception even today. The most likely source was the 1818 play Giulietta e Romeo by Luigi Scevola, with perhaps some extra material from Nicolò Zingarelli’s 1796 opera, neither directly derived from Shakespeare. Thus I Capuleti e i Montecchi offers its own take on the Romeo and Juliet story, one without those familiar accoutrements such as Mercutio, the balcony scene, or the nurse.
Berlioz had another nit to pick. The female Romeo stuck in his craw. “To write Romeo’s part for a woman—as though there were some law that Juliet’s lover must always appear shorn of his manhood… Moses or Othello discharged in a piping treble would hardly be more incongruous than a female Romeo.” Incongruous, yes; uncommon, no. As of 1830 the trouser role was on its last legs, so to speak. It appears to have originated when women substituted for castrati—singers castrated in boyhood to preserve the soprano or contralto range of their voices—in Baroque operas. That led to the practice of writing male roles explicitly for women, keeping with a general preference for high-voiced heroes, just the opposite of cultural norms today. Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, written specifically for reigning diva Giuditta Grisi, was to be the last major trouser role in Italian opera. It wasn’t just dead tradition that was driving Bellini; the musical advantages are aptly demonstrated by the ravishing first-act duet (I Capuleti’s equivalent of the balcony scene) in which the complementary ranges of the two singers allow for a close intertwining of vocal lines that could not be achieved with a male Romeo. A related practice of casting females as boys or youths (Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) was to persist; even Berlioz, high dudgeon notwithstanding, got into the trouser-role business with the young apprentice Ascanio in his 1838 Benvenuto Cellini.
As Bellini decompressed from his Capuleti-induced euphoria, he could not have known that he had just crossed an invisible boundary—the one separating his (brief) early period from his (also brief) artistic maturity. I Capuleti e i Montecchi serves as both anthology and capstone of Bellini’s pre-1830 career. Now he was to produce a trio of masterpieces that stand at the very summit of Italian opera. His maturity commenced with a stumble, however, as he and Romani started work on an ill-advised adaptation of Victor Hugo’s controversial play Hernaniwhich soon proved to be too hot a potato for the Italian censors to handle. Thus chastened, Bellini and Romani turned instead to La Sonnambula, a sweet pastoral drama that won itself a permanent place in the repertory.

Bellini's frequent collaborator, librettist Felice Romani

On July 23, 1831 Bellini wrote to his friend Alessandro Lamperi: “I have already chosen the subject for my new opera, and it is a tragedy entitled Norma, ossia L’Infanticidio, by Alexandre Soumet.” The tragic story of the Druid priestess who goes nobly to the stake for love inspired Bellini to create his juiciest female role and his best-known opera. That said, Norma’s first performance in December 1831 was something of a disaster, but from the second performance onwards Norma was a hit and quickly made its way throughout Europe. It was followed by 1833’s Beatrice di Tenda, a notably less successful venture that ended the Bellini-Romani partnership in a sad fusillade of quarrels.
Paris beckoned. From August 1833 Bellini’s home was the City of Light. The comely young Bellini hobnobbed with Rossini and Chopin as he oversaw productions of Il Pirata and I Capuleti, butted heads with intransigent bureaucrats at the Paris Opéra, and saw his swan song I Puritani through to a wildly successful premiere at the Théâtre-Italien in early 1835. But time was running out. His long-standing intestinal disorder flared up; a liver abscess developed. He died, alone, in suburban Puteaux from amoebic dysentery on September 23, 1835, just five weeks shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. His casket now rests on a marble monument in the Duomo of Catania, and bears this line from La Sonnambula: “Ah! I did not think to see you extinguished so soon, o flower.” Bellini’s output may be small, but as in all things, quality trumps quantity. His relatively early I Capuleti e i Montecchi achieves not only a potent blend of dramatic tension and lyrical charm, but also—like the early Shakespeare play upon which it is not based—conjures up a beguiling glimpse of the great things yet to come.
Scott Foglesong is chair of San Francisco Conservatory’s Department of Musicianship and Music Theory. A pianist and lecturer, he also serves as program annotator and scholar-in-residence for San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and is a contributing writer for San Francisco Symphony.  

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Director's Note

Vincent Boussard


A scene from our co-production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.
photo by Wilfried Höst

Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi is possibly the shortest and most striking version of the story of the lovers of Verona. Bellini’s libretto was not inspired by Shakespeare, but by the source material that Shakespeare used. The spirit of the piece is more about the nineteenth-century obsessions of a young Italian composer than about any Elizabethan ghosts, and it is well known that Bellini composed the opera in a very short time for the Venice Carnival.

Because of the famous context of the war between these two families, the piece is full of accents of extreme cruelty and desperation. Nevertheless, this darkness is mitigated by the highest degree of elegance and clarity when Bellini’s music centers on the fragility of love. The tension between the refinement of the composition and the cruel blindness of the protagonists make I Capuleti e i Montecchi a masterpiece, giving the main characters a true depth of soul. Both Romeo and Giulietta take part in the fever of the darkness, but their souls go irresistibly towards the light— the only place where they can meet forever.

We designed the production and the costumes, which function mainly to reveal the hidden and fragile interior of the characters, as an echo to the highly refined compositional style of the music. The set acts as if a reminiscence of the most elaborate fresco would be sweating from the walls of this palace—a box for Capellio’s “Jewel-lietta,” but also a jail and a grave for the two young lovers.

The question we are left contemplating is the following: Is it possible that even the highest degree of love and the most refined culture are left utterly crippled when coupled with the cruelty and craziness of people sick with revenge?

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"Run as quickly as you can to War Memorial Opera House!"

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and soprano Nicole Cabell will astonish you as Romeo and Juliet!"

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Extraordinary...vocal splendors on display" by Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell!

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Riccardo Frizza "conducted with spirit and sensitivity, and drew lustrous playing from the Opera Orchestra."

  –San Francisco Chronicle


Joyce DiDonato, renowned for her incredible dexterity in singing both male and female roles, recently took home a Grammy® for Diva/Divo, an album that includes a selection of arias for the mezzo-soprano voice. DiDonato is the first classical singer to perform at the Grammy Awards and brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation. Watch her performance of Rossini's "Non piu mesta":


Listen to Joyce DiDonato and Anna Netrebko sing a duet from The Capulets and the Montagues:


Watch Joyce DiDonato sing the Act 1 aria from The Capulets and the Montagues (Paris, 2008):

An Interview with Saimir Pirgu

Learn more about Saimir Pirgu in San Francisco Classical Voice's interview with the tenor.
Read Article

Christian Lacroix Fashions

Get a sneak peek of Christian Lacroix's costumes in this article from San Francisco Chronicle.
Read Article


Listen to Natalie Dessay sing "Eccomi in lieta vesta...Oh quante volte" (And remember, Dessay sings in The Tales of Hoffmann in summer 2013!):


Learn more about the bel canto style in this article by The New York Times' classical music critic Anthony Tommasini:

Read Article


  • Sat 09/29/12 8:00pm

  • Wed 10/3/12 7:30pm *

  • Thu 10/11/12 7:30pm *

  • Sun 10/14/12 2:00pm *

  • Tue 10/16/12 8:00pm

  • Fri 10/19/12 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


This production is made possible, in part, by Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn. Ms. DiDonato's appearance is made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.