The story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired literally hundreds of operas, most of them based on the Shakespeare play. Bellini's treatment, however, with a libretto byFelice Romani, was not based on Shakespeare, but on a Renaissance story that Shakespeare had also used as a source. I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the most notable Romeo and Juliet opera from the bel canto era, emphasizes the poignancy of the story. Due largely to the limitations of the singers who would be performing at the premiere in Venice, Bellini made Romeo into a trouser role formezzo-soprano (a device that by then was considered slightly old-fashioned for a romantic lead), but the choice also emphasizes the youth and vulnerability of the lovers. While there are fiery moments, particularly the various martial declarations in the first scene by Tebaldo and Romeo, most of the opera spins out extended threads of wistful and longing song, in passages that are among the best of the bel canto elegiac style.
The opera resembles Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet only in the names of the protagonists and the faked death/missed messages debacle. Romani trimmed characters out of the story line and simplified it - the only soloists are Romeo, Juliet (Giulietta), Juliet's father, Lorenzo (here a physician rather than a cleric), and Tebaldo (who is now the Capulet engaged to Juliet), and when the opera opens, Romeo and Juliet have already met and fallen in love.
"Oh, quante volte," Giulietta's opening aria in which she longs for Romeo to return to her, is the opera's best-known aria and is highly typical of the entire work. Romeo has one martial cabaletta after the Capulets reject an offer of peace, but otherwise his music, too, mostly expresses the vulnerability and pathos of the two lovers. However, Bellini's mastery is not just in the beauty of the music for the lovers, but in the way it is set against the bloodthirsty music of the chorus, showing both families in the grip of war fever. Bellini used something of the same technique later, in Norma; there the stark contrast is largely limited to the first act, rather than being a focal point of the entire opera.
Bellini was only 29 when he began his setting, but he had already enjoyed two major critical successes (Il Pirata in 1827 and La straniera in 1829) as well as three other operas and numerous songs and pieces of sacred music. For many, the work opens Bellini's mature period as a composer, displaying a powerful grasp on musical structure and harmony. His characteristic blending of arioso and aria and intensely melodic setting of recitative (which at times almost becomes indistinguishable from arioso) is already present in many moments, most notably in the final ensemble, and this is a style he was to bring to much fuller fruition in La sonnambula, Norma, and I Puritani. While much of the opera contains reworked materials, the reworkings were generally improvements on their originals.
Romeo and Juliet was Bellini's first opera to premiere in Venice at La Fenice, where it enjoyed an enormous success. In 1833, it premiered in London at the King's Theater in the spring (where Bellini was present to witness this new triumph) and at the Paris Opera in the fall, where once again it was very successfully received. Bellini enjoyed some secret personal satisfaction from these successes: the opera included reworked versions of several melodies from Zaira, which Bellini believed had been unjustly labeled a failure.
In the later part of the century, the work dropped in critical opinion, though it retained some popularity on the stage. Franz Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner all condemned it as hopelessly old-fashioned, although even such musical progressives could not deny the appeal and richness of the melodies. It was revived in 1935, the centenary of Bellini's death, and during the bel canto revivals of the later twentieth century it was a regular if not frequent item in the repertoire of both opera houses and recording studios. In 1966, Claudio Abbado even created a version assigning Romeo to a tenor, but it was not widely adopted: almost without exception, Romeo remained a trouser role.