Fabio Luisi Conducts Tense, Musically Sublime Performance of Bellini’s Tale of Doomed Love

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich, 7.7.15 (RP)

Giulietta: Olga Kulchynska
Romeo: Joyce DiDonato
Tebaldo: Benjamin Bernheim
Capellio: Alexei Botnarciuc
Lorenzo: Roberto Lorenzi
Director: Christof Loy
Stage and costume design: Christian Schmidt
Lighting design: Franck Evin
Chorus master: Jürg Hämmerli
Choreography: Thomas Wilhelm
Dramaturgy: Kathrin Brunner
Solo clarinet: Robert Pickup

Any notion that Zurich Opera’s production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi would have tender or comedic moments like those found in Shakespeare’s telling of the tale of Romeo and Juliet, let alone the opulent, romantic atmosphere of Zeffirelli’s 1960s film adaptation, was dispelled in the first minutes of the overture. In the version by Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani, the two families are warring political factions, which was made abundantly clear by a stage littered with dead bodies. It was also obvious that Giulietta was just a pawn in an all-male power play. There were overt suggestions that she had been psychologically terrorized by her father, and her bathroom was a safe zone where she escaped under duress from him (and later her beloved and her betrothed). Then there was a mute, apparently younger version of Giulietta who appeared. Why, I am not sure. And all of this before a note was sung.

There is more steel than velvet in Olga Kulchynska’s voice, perhaps not what one might imagine for a Giulietta, but this was no love-struck teenager. Her unswerving love for Romeo did not cloud her eyes: she knew that having a secret lover who is your father’s political nemesis and has just killed your brother doesn’t lead to happily ever after. Kulchynska was unburdened by all of the symbolism heaped on her and created a complex, compelling Giulietta. She has the technical prowess, including a decent trill, to bring Bellini’s delicate lines to life. And in the second act, where she sees a glimmer of hope of being united with Romeo, her voice bloomed with an unexpected warmth and intensity.

Joyce DiDonato, her Romeo, is an international star at the peak of her powers, with all the tools of the trade in her arsenal. In Bellini’s opera, or at least this production, Romeo has less ground to cover emotionally than does Giulietta. He is in love, and for him it’s a no-brainer that Giulietta would leave her family. Sure, a few people may die in the process, but as all the bodies on stage clearly indicated, this is just a messy detail with which to reckon. As Romeo’s dreams of happiness evaporated, DiDonato’s singing similarly gained in dramatic intensity. Some of her finest singing was in the recitative “Deserto è il loco,” when Lorenzo fails to meet him as planned in their ill-fated attempt to flee; and in Romeo’s final aria, “Deh! tu, bell’anima,” as he bids farewell to his beloved whom he believes is already dead.

Of all of the male protagonists, Benjamin Bernheim’s Tebaldo was the least self-centered character on stage. There were actually moments when Giulietta’s needs and fate registered with him. However, this human touch would have been of little importance without a voice to communicate such feelings, and Bernheim has a wonderfully clear, ringing tenor. He could take a bit more care with his top notes, but then his willingness to take a risk is part of the package. His Act I aria, “Si: M’Abbreccia,” where he expresses his love for Giulietta, was marked by especially lovely phrasing, nuanced rhythms and subtle dynamic shadings.

Whether intentional or not, Alexei Botnarciuc’s Capellio bore an uncanny resemblance to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather. Unfortunately, it was a one-dimensional characterization sung with muffled tone. Likewise, Roberto Lorenzi’s Lorenz left little impression. The same cannot be said for the men of the chorus. From their first appearance on stage during the overture, they delineated vivid, menacing characterizations and did much to provide tension and continuity throughout the performance. Some also appeared in drag as the Capuleti celebrated Giulietta and Tebaldo’s forthcoming nuptuals, and despite the makeup, perfect coiffures and elegant dresses, they made for one tough-looking bunch of ladies.

The credit for blending all these disparate and sometimes jarring parts into an artistically satisfying whole rests solely with conductor Fabio Luisi. He breathed life into Bellini’s score and maintained the dramatic tension throughout. The same cannot be said for the production. Why in the final moments does Giulietta wander off from Romeo’s lifeless body? Why did her younger version suddenly appear on stage in the final seconds? Instead of the curtain coming down on an emotionally wrenching scene, it was an emotional vacuum. All of Luisi’s mastery could not save the moment.

Zurich Opera took a risk with this production, not in terms of the sets, costumes and concept, but rather with the casting. The pairing of Joyce DiDonato with a young, far less experienced Giulietta was not necessarily a surefire recipe for success, but the doomed pair connected dramatically, musically and vocally. Their duets were sublime. Two more dissimilar voices are hard to imagine, yet there were moments when I had to look at their mouths to tell who was singing. It was vocal and musical magic. The risk paid off.

Rick Perdian

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