A misunderstood and underappreciated “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” at San Francisco

San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House, Stagione Lirica 2012/2013
Tragedia Lirica in due atti su libretto di Felice Romani, da Shakespeare.
Musica di Vincenzo Bellini
Coro e Orchestra della San Francisco Opera.
Direttore Riccardo Frizza
Maestro del Coro Jan Robertson
Regia Vincent Broussard
Scene Vincent Lemaire
Costumi Christian Lacroix
Luci Guido Levi
Coproduzione con la Bayerische Staatsoper di Monaco
Monaco, 11 ottobre 2012
San Francisco Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a new co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper, has a lot going for it. The standout feature is, of course, the sensational bel canto singing and acting from soprano Nicole Cabell and mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato. Bellini’s music itself is beautiful and riveting, though the opera is actually the result of “self-plagiarism”, as the composer reused material from a previous work, Zaira. Librettist Felice Romani also refurbished the previous text that he originally created for Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo. Quite fitting for a city at the forefront of sustainability to put on an opera partially constructed of recycled tunes and lyrics. Keeping in step with the spirit of renewal, the festive costumes in this production, designed by legendary couturier Christian Lacroix, were made using fabrics harvested from deconstructing vintage costumes from the Bavarian State Opera’s archives. The ethereal lighting and projections, created by Guido Levi, also deserves special recognition. But of all these wonderful elements, what I found most noteworthy and interesting about this production is, in fact, the staging which has received harsh reproach from many audience members and critics. Vincent Boussard’s interpretation, whimsically dark and twisted à la Tim Burton, provides an unapologetic dose of authenticity. Its candid portrayal of the harsh realities of this tragic tale is one that few can stomach.
To truly appreciate I Capuleti e i Montecchi, one must abandon the Shakespearean version of Romeo and Juliet as the libretto is based not on the play, but rather on the source materials from which the English playwright derived his famed tragedy. The opera is less focused on plot, offering a condensed snapshot consisting of only the final chapters of the story. It provides an intimate closeup of our young protagonists’ psyche, the heroine’s internal tug-of-war between love and duty, and exposes the oppressive cruelty of their families and the darkness of the time period in which they lived. The first act opens to a chorus of men wearing top hats singing beneath rows of saddles hanging from the rafters. One later realize that Giulietta is the only female character we hear in the entire opera. Women do appear in the scenes, but they are voiceless; Bellini did not write a single note for them. Lacroix does a wonderful job highlighting the fact that women were powerless and disposable, serving merely as decorative ornaments, by adorning the courtesans with colorful costumes and covering their mouths with gigantic flowers.
In the second scene we see a delicate, birdlike Cabell with her back to the audience. Dressed in her wedding gown, she stands barefoot in a small enclosed space with a lone sink protruding from the back wall. Cabell opens the scene with a marvelous “Oh! Quante volte,” rendered with heartbreaking despair. Her voice danced around the delicate accompaniment of the harp, together plucking away at the listeners’ heartstrings. At one point during the number, Cabell climbs up on to the sink and stretches out her arm. In vain she desperately reaches toward a pair of statues hanging from above: two figures intertwined in loving embrace representing the highest degree of unadulterated love. Having Cabell balance on the edge of the sink was a risky move as suspenseful, acrobatic stunts like these often distract both the singer and the spectator from the beauty of the music. Thankfully, Cabell executed the maneuver with the grace and agility of a dancer without disrupting the fluid serenity of the song; no discomfort or anxiety could be detected in her voice. For this reviewer, the avant-guard staging was effective, appropriate, and worthwhile. It was this unexpected and peculiar act of Giulietta’s reaching for an unattainable ideal that made the scene all the more unbearable and gut-wrenching. At that moment it became clear that Giulietta’s washroom was in fact a jail cell and that she, a prisoner of her circumstances, was utterly powerless to free herself from her predicament.
The other moments of impactful staging occur when Romeo and Giulietta are together. Even while in the same room occupying the same space, there always exists an enormous distance between the two as if an invisible yet palpable force keeps them apart. This deliberate spatial placement of the singers and their overall lack of physical contact create a powerful visual representation of how the ill-fated lovers are never quite on the same page, repeatedly missing each other like two ships in the night. Furthermore the pair never seems to be at ease. Not once do we see them lost in a moment of passionate rapture or blissful oblivion. Torn between her love for Romeo and her loyalty to her family, the pressure of filial duty looms over Giulietta constantly. Even at the very end, when Romeo and Giulietta are finally alone in her tomb, we do not find them taking comfort in each other’s arms locked in an eternal embrace. During Romeo’s moving “Deh! Tu, bell’anima,” before he takes the fatal poison, he pulls Giulietta into an upright position where she stands motionless, as if in a parallel universe. Moments later when they are finally joined in death, they walk hand in hand toward the light in the most somber and solemn procession. Countless operas end with the male and female protagonists meeting death together (i.e. Aida, Norma) and directors often choose to soften the blow by making the death scene overly sentimental. Not here. Boussard does not attempt to romanticize or sugar coat the tragic elements of the story; he does not give the audience the satisfaction of a semi-happy ending. This is not your run-of-the-mill Romeo and Juliet. There are no balcony scenes; no illusions of carefree, youthful innocence. This version is dark, terrifying, and bleak. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. Love is not enough; it does not conquer all or triumph over the baseness and evils of humanity. This is Boussard’s unmistakable message, savagely raw and uncompromising, which unfortunately was lost on the average opera-goer.
With a lean cast of only five, much of this opera’s success rests upon the vocal caliber of the two leading ladies (one of them a trouser role), and this production could not have asked for a better duo. Di Donato’s rendition of “Ascolta! Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio” was incredibly earnest and moving. The passion and fervor of her Romeo was a brilliant foil to Giulietta’s fragility, and the contrasting coloring of their voices proved especially complementary in the tight harmonies of their duet, “Ah! Crudel, d’onor ragioni,” following an equally dazzling “Si, fuggire.” Only occasionally could one detect an unsteady vibrato in those passages that lie in the mezzo’s upper register. Di Donato must still be rehabilitating from her previous leg injury as she is often seen hobbling awkwardly across the stage. Cabell, in her San Francisco Opera debut as Giulietta, captivated audiences with her lyricism, tonal clarity, and effortless legato lines. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu struggled with his top notes and did not leave much of an impression as Tebaldo. Bass-baritone Eric Owens and baritone Ao Li, a current Adler Fellow, made the most of their small roles as Capellio and Lorenzo, respectively. The orchestra was even-keeled and precise under the baton of Maestro Riccardo Frizza with noteworthy solos from the french horn and clarinet. The playing was especially lovely and sensitive during some of the intimate solo and duet scenes, bringing into focus the delicate, underlying emotions of the characters. However during the final scene of Act I, there were moments when the voices were swallowed up by the intensity of the orchestra, though this was mostly likely a result of the singers being too far upstage. The male chorus was also very much together and well-balanced in their singing, producing a robust, unified sound. Photo by Cory Weaver.


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