The manuscript of my recent profile of the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu in the New York Times carried a San Francisco dateline, which one of my editors very sensibly suggested we remove. True, my interview with the artist had taken place in that city, around the time of the artist's debut with the San Francisco Opera, a major international company. But we might just as well have connected elsewhere.
As noted in the piece, Mr. Pirgu was appearing in Vincenzo Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi," a tragedy of the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet best not compared with Shakespeare's. Working from other sources, Felice Romani concocted a libretto many have found uneventful and thin. Yet over the course of the bel canto revival of the past half century or so, the effusions of the lovers have won the opera a place on the fringe of the standard repertoire. Unfortunately for tenors, Bellini wrote Romeo for the short-lived diva Giuditta Grisi. In San Francisco, the part fell to Joyce DiDonato, who at this point in her career can do no wrong. The tenor's consolation prize is the heroine's irascible kinsman Tebaldo (Shakespeare's Tybalt).
The starry likes of Nicolai Gedda, Luciano Pavarotti, and more recently Joseph Calleja have made do with this unrewarding cameo. Though content to follow in their footsteps this once, Mr. Pirgu remarked in passing that he would have much preferred to sing the hero. There's precedent for it. In the 1960s, at La Scala, while Pavarotti languished as Tebaldo, the Giulietta of Renata Scotto fell hard for the Romeo of Giacomo Aragall. The fastidious Claudio Abbado, no less, had prepared the score, but who would have the nerve to revive it today? In an age when the bass and baritones versions of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" and Gluck's "Orfeo" strike the ear as aberrations (and even Massenet's baritone arrangement of his "Werther" seems less an alternative than a white elephant), the prospects are not rosy.
All the same, where would be the harm? Authenticity is a fine thing, but there is more to art than following the rules. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet. Fiona Shaw has played Richard II. At a wave of Julie Taymor's wand, Duke Prospero morphed into Helen Mirren's Prospera. Gender-blind casting is one thing, you may say, transposition another. Yes, yes. Still, if an artist of the sensitivity, skill, and heart of Saimir Pirgu wants Bellini's Romeo, let's hear him. Might Joyce DiDonato, no stranger to the soprano tessitura, like at the same time to slip into the ball gown the apprehensive Giulietta sees as the gay raiment of a sacrificial victim?
We can dream, can't we? In the meantime, Mr. Pirgu has the glamorous option of Gounod's Roméo, a role he has sung to acclaim in
Italy and will surely return to. Ah, lève-toi, soleil! Fais pâlir les étoiles.