Variations on better known works is one way of describing two of the flagship operas in this year’s Buxton Festival, 8th to the 24th July: Leonore and I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
The first is Beethoven’s Fidelio and the second in translation, The Capulets and the Montagues, gives you a head start on knowing that it is Romeo and Juliet, courtesy of Bellini.
It actually owes more to the Italian origins of the story way back in the mists of antiquity than Shakespeare’s tragedy, which the Bard himself drew heavily on. So there are, naturally, joint reference points, but don’t go looking for Paris and Mercutio, or a Balcony Scene!
The libretto by Felice Romani was a reworking of the one he had written for the most successful of the 18 operas, Giulietta e Romeo (1825), penned by Nicola Vaccai – now primarily remembered as a renowned singing teacher.
Bellini did some reworking for the music, too. He only had six weeks to write it in and fell back heavily onto the score of his previous opera with Romani, Zaira, which had just failed.
I Capuleti didn’t! Its Venice premiere was a resounding success in March 1830 and, these days, it just about holds its own with the composer’s operatic masterpieces, Norma, I Puritani and La Sonnambula.
Romeo being en travesti – or trouser role (mezzo-soprano) – creates a nice link to Leonore, disguised as a man in Beethoven’s opera named Fidelio in the hope of finding her husband, Florestan, in a forbidding prison.
Many things connected with Beethoven are complex and Fidelio is no exception but, summed up: as Leonore, in three acts, it was first performed in 1805; still as Leonore, it had a second premiere the following year, this time in two acts, the original first two having being condensed as one.
A third and final revised version appeared in 1814, this time as Fidelio! – in fact, the title it first saw the light of day with 1805! although Beethoven cannot be blamed for that.
The basic plot remained the same throughout and you will hear familiar Fidelio music in the Buxton staging of the three-act Leonore, even if the words it is sung to differ with two librettists involved.
Fidelio was actually the fourth incarnation for two of the opera’s most famous numbers. Pizarro’s Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! and the Leonore/ Florestan duet O namenlose Freude both originated in an aborted opera Beethoven began writing to an Emanuel Schikaneder libretto prior to Leonore.
I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Leonore each receive five performances over the festival’s duration, while a third opera, Handel’s opera seria Tamerlano, gets four in a Buxton Festival/ English Concert co-production.
In a nutshell, its complex plot hinges on the Tartar emperor Tamerlano after sparing the life of his prisoner the Turkish Sultan Bajazet, thanks to the intervention of Bajazet’s daughter, Asteria.
Tamerlano, infatuated, sets about trying to win her but first attempts to palm his betrothed, Princess Irene, off on to the Greek prince Andronico, who happens to be in love with Asteria.
It was written in 1724, the same year as two of Handel’s other operatic masterpieces, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. It also contains one of first major tenor roles in opera, that of Bajazet.