Yale Opera takes on bel canto

Yale Opera will perform Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” its first bel canto opera, this weekend at the Shubert Theater.

The Yale Opera program, which trains a handful of young singers for future careers in opera, puts on a major production every year at the Shubert. This year, the program diverged from tradition by choosing a bel canto opera — an early 19th-century Italian opera style. Artistic Director Doris Yarick-Cross, who helped select “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” said the unique Italian vocal style matches the vocal strengths of the program’s current students, who are especially well-suited to the style’s “florid demands.”

Bel canto — which means “beautiful singing” — developed after the comedic operas of Mozart and before the Golden Age of Verdi and Wagner. Mastering the ornate, melodic style requires that young singers learn control over their breath, connect the Italian language to the music and stretch musical timing and phrasing in challenging ways, Conductor Speranza Scappucci said. Due to the students’ imperfect knowledge of Italian pronounciation, she worked individually with singers on language and vocal technique, Scappucci said.

The opera recounts the tragedy of the Montagues and the Capulets. The libretto is based not on the Shakespearean play “Romeo and Juliet,” but rather on older Italian poetry about the star-crossed lovers in Verona, on which the Bard himself based his tale.

Claudia Rosenthal MUS ’14, who will play Guilietta in the Friday and Sunday shows, said that while the love story remains important to the opera, it also highlights the political power struggles behind the feud. She added that the opera begins in the middle of a battle, when the lovers have already met, and will not include the famous ball and balcony scenes many may know from the Shakespeare.

Rosenthal said she found the role challenging due to the preconceived notions many people have about Juliet, explaining that she had to approach the opera’s text with a blank slate.

Bel canto operas include larger choruses than earlier styles. This weekend’s production will feature a five-person main cast, an 11-person chorus of hired freelancers — a mix of professionals and Yale College students — and orchestral musicians of the Yale Philharmonia. The main characters will alternate days, with the first cast performing on Friday and Sunday and the second on Saturday, to increase student participation and to avoid taxing the performers’ voices, Scappucci said.

Conductors and stage directors almost always come from outside Yale to expose singers to the “real world” of opera, Yarick-Cross said. Scappucci, who was born in Rome, studied at Juilliard as a pianist and has served as an opera coach and conductor. Scappucci said Yarick-Cross chose her for her expertise in Italian opera and language and her ability to coach students in addition to conducting them.

Some audience members may also be surprised that the role of Romeo will be played by and was written for a female, mezzo-soprano voice, said Vivien Shotwell MUS ’13, who will play the role in the Friday and Sunday shows. Shotwell added that the opera is her first experience with the bel canto style, and that the adjustment proved very vocally demanding while giving her the opportunity to learn new things about her voice.

“Composers don’t always understand how a human voice works,” she said. “Bellini really knew how to get beautiful sounds out of a voice — it’s very gratifying to sing it.”

Alexander Hahn MUS ’13, who will play Lorenzo on Friday and Sunday, said Bellini’s music requires a clarity and musical sensitivity that makes live performance highly vulnerable and exposed. The orchestral part looks simple on the page, but demands precise intonation and balance in execution, Scappucci said. She added that in addition to its technical difficulty, the opera is accessible and romantic, with soaring melodies and pathos all over the score.

“I Capuleti e i Montecchi” will be performed in Italian with projected English subtitles.

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