Next week, Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca take to the stage at Covent Garden to play Juliet and Romeo in a high-profile production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi; it promises to be one of the highlights of the season. Deutsche Grammophon have been quick off the mark to release a recording of the work with the same glamorous leads, captured live in Vienna in April 2008.
The result is an exciting, urgent, dramatic performance that seems to have benefited from having been recorded live rather than over-manipulated. While there are some undeniable flaws, the overall level of intensity and commitment from all concerned makes this the sort of set one wants to return to more than once.
As far as looks are concerned, Netrebko is obviously a perfect fit as Giulietta and will surely be beautiful in the ROH production. Vocally, she's always been too much on the Slavonic side for Italian music for my taste, but this aspect of her instrument has an attendant pathos about it and the singing is always beautiful. She's at her finest in her romanza, 'Oh! quante volte', which is at once emotionally impassioned and vocally contained, but she also shines in the duets with Romeo, where her compatibility with Garanca creates an unmistakable chemistry.
Garanca also has an Eastern European timbre to her voice but otherwise seems ideally cast as Romeo. Her portrayal rivals the best of recent decades, thanks to the combination of her steely tone and a fearlessness in the delivery of the text. Garanca rises to the occasion in each of her appearances, be it her cavatina, the beautifully-constructed ensembles or in particular during the stirring duet with Tebaldo, one of the highlights of the set. Following on from an imaginatively-conceived album of bel canto arias released last month, this complete Capuleti finds Garanca riding the crest of a wave.
Admittedly, the remaining three soloists are less to my taste. Joseph Calleja's voice has never been amongst my most favourite – personally I find his vibrato too fast and used too often, and he seems to employ it to compensate for the natural lightness of his timbre – so for me he stands out in the midst of the sumptuous singing of Garanca and Netrebko. Robert Gleadow (Lorenzo) is not heard at his best here – again the prominent vibrato is distracting in a style of singing that derives strongly from the clean lines of the Classical period – and Tiziano Bracci (Capellio) seems rather provincial in such exulted company.
Those reservations don't detract from the achievement of the whole, however. The conducting of Fabio Luisi is perfect for this piece: he preserves the long lines which set Bellini apart from his contemporaries, yet maintains both the urgency and the lightness of touch which is needed to guide the bel canto repertoire. The sensitivity to the singers is remarkable, yet the Wiener Symphoniker really lets rip at times, notably in the first-act finale. This fifteen-minute structure acts as one big accelerator into the interval, and by the end of it the Wiener Singakademie, orchestra and soloists are all at fever pitch – which is just as it should be. There's the odd occasion where the individual instrumental playing could be finer, and in general the recording is more spirited than refined, but as far as I'm concerned this is a successful performance and a splendid preview for the forthcoming run of the opera Covent Garden beginning on 2 March under Sir Mark Elder.
Photo: Steven Haberland
Elina Garanca in an Opera Gala from Baden-Baden on Deutsche Grammophon
Elina Garanca as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden
Elina Garanca guests on Anna Netrebko's latest CD, Souvenirs
Anna Netrebko in La traviata at Covent Garden