Fabulous Fabio

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In the thick of rehearsals for Bellini´s I Capuleti e i Montecchi – a notoriously difficult opera to stage – with complex chorus choreography, exhausted soloists and the alarming possibility of Tebaldo accidently stabbing a stagehand (yes, we have real swords) – a small figure remains serene. Fabio Biondi, conductor, Bellini specialist, baroque and classical violinist supremo is smiling calmly and discussing rubato with his Spanish assistant, José Ramón Martín Díaz. José is fiddling with the piano and playing snatches of The Way you look Tonight. Fabio is singing quietly ’…. La tremenda ultrice spada…’

Talking to him is like experiencing a gentle blood transfusion – inspiration flows from him in an extraordinary way, as though he himself is discovering new wonders as he speaks. He´s telling me about how bel canto, in present times, should really be described as bella musica – ’bel canto was really about writing music for the stars, about celebrating the spectacular voices. Now we try to show how deep this music is, how interesting, how much detail is in the chorus, the orchestra, the dramaturgy. So maybe we take a little focus away from the singers’. Hence bella musica for the 21st century.

He talks about ’the smell’ of Shakespeare´s tragedy and looking at Nicola Raab´s production here for us in Bergen, I know exactly what he means. As the curtain opens onto pale gloom, prone figures and a set where white walls drip with ink-black paint there is the sense that, inevitably, no good will come of this story. Biondi calls the opera ’a celebration, but in a terrible way’. The stars, for sure, are not aligned.

’So we hear at once’ he says ’that the music is not superficial. We have the first very important cabaletto from Tebaldo and Romeo; fabulous melody – Bellini, for me is the prince of that – and all the fantastically different elements in this intense and strong story’.

For Biondi, Capuleti is Bellini´s greatest opera. ’No, not Norma; yes, but it has a kind of monumental quality. But it´s much less human. Capuleti is like, well, it´s a multi-media opera!’ Many of course, will disagree. Capuleti, again and again, is dismissed with a shrug. ’Not my favourite’ said one critic (he´s coming to our premiere – I am trusting Biondi and Raab to change his mind….) The demands on the singers are frightening – Giulietta and Romeo both sing across a vast range – and the long, eloquent arias which cannot realistically be interrupted by any stage action must generate their own drama and hold their audience in emotional thrall. So the actual theatre of the piece is entirely in the music – a fact which thrills Biondi: ’You know, this is so good – it’s such a strong argument for showing the audience that this music is not in any way a simple accompagnata for the voice.’

’Bellini believed so much in the relationship between the sound and the dramaturgy. Romeo´s instrument is the clarinet, Guiletta´s, the horn. It runs so deep – right at the end of the opera, when Romeo is alone and distraught at Guiletta´s death – when he´s singing ’Come, come, I cannot live without you’, there in the orchestra her ’horn’ voice is calling.’

Listening to the first orchestral rehearsals, it´s clear that Fabio also loves the ’human’ sound of the middle stings. As the wind and violins strut rhythms which will support the chorus, he is leaning, gesturing and beaming at the violas, drawing rich, warm lines. (’No wonder we love him… how many conductors actually encourage us to play more’ says one happy violist at the interval). ’These long lines are so beautiful’ says equally happy Biondi; ’we must use all these elements to show the emotion in the music’.

The ’trouser’ role for Romeo is one of the last in 19th century musical development, something which bemused if not irritated his contemporaries who by then were busy glorifying the new hero tenors. ’Berlioz’ mused Biondi ’was actually a very nice man’ but he really hated this score because of the two women. But I think Bellini really understood the story´s trauma. These lovers have only just passed childhood – Romeo must have a sweet, fierce boyish voice. He is not an adult romantic hero.

’Actually, I once attended auditions in Dubai – they wanted a tenor for Romeo because of course to have two women there was out of the question. And it sounded horrible. No slight on the poor singers, but the poetry is lost.’

So, to Bergen, where Kristina Mkhitaryan and Nino Surguladze are our star-struck lovers, their voices blending in heavenly union.  Biondi is excited – the opera is a Norwegian premiere. ’Wonderful! We know that Capuleti e Montechi was a fantastic success at its debut performances in 1830. Now we have the chance to show Norway why!’

Mary Miller

1st November 2016