Gorgeous Singing, Bewildering Staging for Bellini in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues): Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 3.10.2012 (HS)


Giulietta: Nicole Cabell
Romeo: Joyce DiDonato
Tebaldo: Saimir Pirgu
Lorenzo: Ao Li
Capellio: Eric Owens

Conductor: Riccardo Frizza
Director: Vincent Boussard
Set Designer: Vincent Lemaire
Costume Designer: Christian Lacroix
Lighting Designer: Guido Levi
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
Photo by Cory Weaver

Bellini threw together I Capuleti e i Montecchi in six weeks, a rush job for La Fenice in Venice when the original composer defaulted, and it feels like it. Dramatically confused, the story of the star-crossed lovers gets mashed up with political intrigue and war, and Italian cultural and familial customs. Felice Romano’s libretto, based on sources other than Shakespeare’s iconic Romeo and Juliet and recycled from another opera libretto, is clumsier than other well known bel canto gems. Bellini cadged music from several other failed projects, so the score lacks the organic relationships of, say, Norma or La Sonnambula (which followed this one).

San Francisco Opera’s staging, a co-production with Bavarian State Opera in Munich, made the story more confusing by half. Director Vincent Broussard and set designer Vincent Lemaire, reprising their work in Munich, decked out the stage with a reflective floor, swaths of shadows adorning walls that kept changing color. Why was the opening scene played under a hanging forest of saddles? Why was the climactic scene of Act I played on a set of risers? Eye-catching costumes by famous designer Christian Lacroix made even less sense, the men in dark suits and top hats, their allegiances indicated by big foofy white bows, the women in garish multi-colored dresses and modern platform heels that rendered them awkward on the risers and the sharply raked stage.

Broussard seemed obsessed with the idea that the lovers are performing a balancing act as they pursue their relationship while their families rattle the sabers of war. At one point, Giulietta sings an extensive aria while sidling precariously along the bottom edge of an enormous picture frame that filled the entire proscenium. We end up worrying whether the singer is going to tumble into the pit, rather than focusing on the music. The duel scene with Romeo and Tebaldo (a.k.a. Tybalt) was played out not with swords but with silver gloves (why?), the singers walking the edge of the set as if on tightropes.

The only recourse for a sane audience member was to focus entirely on the music. Page after page provided gloriously ravishing melody for Romeo (a mezzo soprano) and Giulietta (a lyric soprano). Talking with friends at intermission, I shrugged off the head-scratching about what the production was really about. “It’s about parallel thirds and sixths,” I said.

And indeed, Nicole Cabell intertwined her silvery and creamy soprano with mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato’s clarity, expansive range and pinpoint accuracy. The voices meshed with such vibrancy, their phrasing immaculate and compelling, that nothing else really mattered. Individually, DiDonato strode the stage believably as a young man alternately thrilled and bewildered by his mercurial lover. Played to the hilt as a girl driven mad by the pressures of her life, Cabell’s Giulietta climbed atop a strangely positioned sink, writhed on the floor, and did her darnedest to distract us from the confusion of the staging.

Tenor Saimir Pirgu sounded a bit strained in Act I, but found his footing (so to speak) in Act II, delivering his scene with Romeo in rich, focused, lyric sound. Bass Eric Owens lent welcome gravitas to Capellio (Giulietta’s father and head of the clan) and baritone Ao Li (currently an Adler Fellow in the opera’s development program) made a solid impression with plangent singing as Lorenzo (the Capulets’ physician).

In the end, of course, it was all about the voices. Bellini knew exactly what he was doing when he resurrected tunes and ensembles from his less successful operas to patch into this admittedly standard-issue bel canto format. The genius is in the writing, which displays a beautiful voice like a velvet case shows off a diamond.

Harvey Steiman