Richard Wagner told Cosima he first got the idea of composing an opera about Tristan and Isolde while he was conducting Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi starring his muse, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, in the trouser role of Romeo.

Wagner said lots of stuff. Whether this bit was true or not, it was Wagner’s high opinion of Bellini (especially Norma, of course) that kept the man in the repertory outside of Italy through the dark years of verismo and Gesamtkünstwerk. Happily, the two men never met; Wagner would have tried to borrow money and you know how that would have turned out. 

In the afternoon preceding last Saturday’s concert performance of Capuleti at Caramoor, maestro Will Crutchfield gave a talk (with piano) on Bellini’s influence on Wagner but, unaware of this, I went by a later bus rather than the earlier train and missed it. Deep regrets. A friend who was there was knocked out by Crutchfield’s talk (why not?), and hoped it would be recorded. Putting it on the Web site would be fine advertising for Crutchfield’s summer-long bel canto program, now in its ninth year.

The operas at Caramoor are always preceded by talks and smaller concerts germane to the pièce de resistance, showing off the voices of the program’s young artists. This year, besides a concert devoted to all-but-forgotten Nicola Vaccaj—who had set the Capuleti libretto as Giulietta e Romeo five years before Bellini had that pleasure, and whose Tomb Scene was preferred by Malibran and other prima donnas to the point of interpolating Vaccaj after two acts of Bellini (to, no doubt, the mortification of both composers)—there was a concert of fascinating bits of other Romeo and Juliet derivations, by the likes of Zingarelli (Bellini’s teacher), Steibelt, Gounod, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Zandonai and Leonard Bernstein. (I know just what you’re going to say: What, no Filippo Marchetti? Sad but true.)

If the weather is at all decent (on Capuleti Saturday, it was deliciously almost-cool if a bit humid), you should always try to spend the whole day at Caramoor: The grounds are a treat and you’ll hear lovely musical tidbits you never heard before, I guarantee.

Capuleti, when we got around to it, was livelier than it tends to be, Crutchfield bringing out the rumbustious Rossini crescendi Bellini had not yet discarded, the male chorus in fine fettle. (Why do so many operas of the time—all of Rossini before Semiramide, I believe—have only a male chorus? Was it just too expensive to hire women or was it not yet respectable for them to sing nightly on the opera stage? They certainly danced the frequent and forgotten ballets.)

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s boasted several soloists (Bellini calls for clarinet, horn and cello in this opera) whose plangent swelling and fading notes implied bel canto training on par with that of the singers.

I first heard this opera in the infamous Abbado revision, with Romeo a tenor. Even Giacomo Aragall’s famous legs and Renata Scotto’s bel canto chops couldn’t quite bring that off. A concert with Troyanos and Sills and a run at the City Opera with Connolly and Dunleavy did not encourage me to regard this work of 1830 (a great success in its day) as much more than a prelude to greater works.

“O quante volte,” Giulietta’s languid aria, a too-constant feature of voice contests, simply foreshadows Amina’s great scena in La Sonnambula the following year, and the Capuleti love duets for soprano and mezzo aren’t a patch on Norma.

Crutchfield’s vigorous conducting and some very pretty vocalism made it a jolly pastime, still more a curiosity than a candidate to join Bellini’s three masterpieces (with Puritani) in the major leagues. Still: Three is pretty good for a man dead by the time he turned thirty-four.

The cast were all of them in good form, none of them quite knockouts. Eglise Gutiérrez, whose voice has a beauty, a luster, an evenness that recall the young Caballé, lacks the occasional power with which that lady, trained as a dramatic soprano, could draw one up short to excellent effect. Too, Gutiérrez seems never much to care what words she is singing; we do not hear them in any case. That stratagem may maintain the youthful sheen of her sound but it, too, undercuts dramatic effect.

Kate Aldrich—sometimes known as “the other Kate”—looked good but gamine, a Cherubino not a rough-tough Ghibelline warrior, and she had a rough night controlling her pretty but not terribly distinctive mezzo. She eschewed high notes and could not be heard at all if anyone else (Giulietta, Tebaldo) duetted with her. By the second act she was producing passion without sacrificing beauty of tone, but she did not cut a heroic figure.

The boys were okay, but only Leonardo Capalbo as Tebaldo, Giulietta’s fiancé, had much to do. His barky tenor is sizable and well produced, and after some pitch problems at his entrance, he sang a fine cabaletta with point and bite. Benjamin Harris and Jeffrey Beruan ably filled the comprimario roles of Lorenzo and Capellio, the Father and the father.

Lilli Lehmann, having achieved both feats, famously said that singing Bellini’s Norma was tougher than singing the three Brunnhildes, a remark that has led far too many unwise Wagnerians to infer they are up to the former.

What she seems to have meant is that, in Bellini, the singer has no place to duck and cover, whereas, surrounded by the enormous Wagnerian orchestra, a singer who runs out of breath or has any other problem has the option of fading into the sound, of letting herself be carried along for a minute or two.

In Bellini, you’re out there: Everything rides on the singer, and every flaw is plain over an orchestration kept pointedly slight but functional, joining vocal scene to scene and maintaining the romantic atmosphere.

Gutierrez could handle this, strolling exquisitely through long, dulcet, plaintive scenes that could easily become tedious and somehow, with just her voice and an instrument or two, held our attention. She is worth noting and hearing, and I hope will develop some Italian diction and dramatic flair to go with them.

The singers who were worshipped in Bellini’s day were the great actresses like Pasta and Malibran and Schröder-Devrient, not the canaries. Patti and Melba, wise women who knew their instruments, sang fluttery Elvira and even some Wagner but not Norma or Giulietta—they knew they’d never get away with it.

Photo: Gabe Palacio