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.
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. Il Pirata was more than a showcase for superstar singers, however. 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.”
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 Hernani—which 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.
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 has been on the faculty of San Francisco Conservatory since 1978. A pianist and lecturer, he also serves as a contributing writer and “Inside Music” lecturer for San Francisco Symphony.
Note: This essay was published in a 2012 edition of San Francisco Opera Magazine.