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SUNDAY NIGHT OPERA: The Capulets and the Montagues! And Shakespeare? Nowhere in Sight

Frederick Leighton's "The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet," 1855

This April marks 400 years since Shakespeare walked the earth, and all month long, WCRB celebrates his legacy with operas inspired by the Bard!

This week, Bellini's "The Capulets and the Montagues” (I Capuleti e i Montecchi) with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, which I learn to my great surprise, has nothing to do with Shakespeare at all!

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

If Juliet is to Capulet as Romeo is to Montague, then it stands to reason that Bellini’s “The Capulets and the Montagues” might be based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Right?

Apparently not. 

William Shakespeare's fame in English-speaking countries, and his influence on the English language in general, can lead us to mistakenly believe that his works were renowned all over. But as it turns out, Shakespeare was largely unknown in 1830’s Italy, when Bellini was writing his I Capuleti e i Montecchi. And his most famous play, Romeo and Juliet? It has nothing to do with Bellini's opera! 

I know. I was surprised too.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Where did the story come from? Well, as it turns out, right at home in Italy.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not the wholly original work we might like to believe it is. Not by a long shot. The story, in one form or another, existed in Italy for nearly a century prior to Shakespeare writing his version. He wasn't even the first English writer to take the story up: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was an expansion of a British poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. 

Brooke's work too was an adaptation, of a French novella by Pierre Boaistuau, with the lengthy title "The Third Story of Two Lovers, One of Whom Died of Poison, the Other of Sadness". And Boaistuau? You got it! He based his novella on a work by an Italian poet, named Matteo Bandello.

Matteo Bandello is important for two reasons: He was apparently the first to add the famous last names "Capulet and Montague" to the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet. He also inspired several other Shakespeare plays beyond Romeo and Juliet, including Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing.

Matteo Bandello (1480-1652)

Back to the question: why Capulets and Montagues, if not via Shakespeare?

Well. Mateo Bandello based his Giulietta e Romeo a Verona on a poem by Luigi da Porto (who was the first to set the story in "fair Verona"), and it was his version of Romeo and Juliet, not Shakespeare's, which inspired Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi.*

So it's not truly a Shakespeare-inspired opera, but who cares? It's a great opera, and kicks off our month-long celebration of Shakespeare on Sunday Night at 8:00pm!  Tune in


More Shakespeare Operas this Month

April 10: Verdi's Falstaff
April 17: Thomas' Hamlet
April 24: Gounod's Roméo et Juliette

*(Sort of. It actually inspired a play by Luigi Scevola, which inspired an opera by Nicola Vaccia called Giulietta e Romeo, which Bellini reworked into his I Capuleti e i Montecchi. History is just never all that simple, is it?)

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.