Bellini’s Capulets and Montagues Pop Up in an Essex Barn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Soloists of Pop-Up Opera, James Hurley (stage director) & Berrak Dyer (musical director/piano). Anne of Cleves Barn, Great Bardfield, Essex. 9.4.2016. (JPr)

Pop-Up Opera , I Capuleti e I Montecchi (courtesy Richard Lakos) 9
Alice Privett as Giulietta in Pop-Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi
(c) Richard Lakos

Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi


Romeo: Katie Grosset
Giulietta: Alice Privett
Capellio: Andrew Tipple
Tebaldo: Cliff Zammit-Stevens
Lorenzo: Matthew Palmer

Bellini wrote I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets & The Montagues) in a month and a half early in 1830 recycling some music previously used in his opera Zara. (I can appreciate that and sometimes use the same technique with reviews I write!) The librettist Felice Romani’s adaptation of the story of Romeo and Juliet is not based on Shakespeare’s play, but on the same sixteenth-century sources that inspired him. The story centres on the tragic love between Romeo and Giulietta amidst the continuing conflict between the Capulet and the Montague families. There is no place for Mercutio, Benvolio, Lady Capulet or the Nurse. However, Juliet’s betrothed, Tebaldo is given prominence and the plot concentrates on his rivalry with Romeo for Giulietta. Except for Lorenzo’s place as physician and advisor in the Capulet household rather than in a hermitage, the events leading to the deaths of the two lovers are significantly the same as in Shakespeare.

This is clearly opera-by-numbers but provides a wonderful showcase for Pop-Up Opera’s five young singers. This enterprising company is the brainchild of operatic soprano Clementine Lovell who in the summer of 2010 staged a series of opera scenes in a Herefordshire barn. As their website continues ‘This venue normally staged folk music and blues, so a large percentage of the audiences were not familiar with opera. Yet the concerts were a huge success. Having spent two years living in Italy, where opera comes to small towns and theatres, Clementine saw no reason why the same could not happen in Britain. These experiences came together to form Pop-up Opera; a unique and unconventional touring opera company.’ The remaining twelve performances will take place in diverse venues such as Cornwall’s Minack Theatre, London’s Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft and the Museum of Water & Steam, before I Capuleti e i Montecchi finishes on 7 May in Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

This was my first experience of Pop-Up Opera and I understand they are usually known for their comic operas. This is certainly not one of those and I suspect it is partly acknowledging the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In the midst of the Essex countryside they sold out what is known as the ‘Anne of Cleves’ Barn at Bardfield Vineyard. (After the marriage was annulled Henry VIII’s wife was believed to have lived in Bardfield Hall.) Obviously refurbished with great care this was a wonderful setting for what I describe as ‘country house’ opera. It was disappointing how few young people were there but as with the opera screenings in cinemas the audience was mainly drawn from the older generation. Many in the audience did not seem to be regular opera-goers – so congratulations to Pop-Up Opera for attracting them to an evening of Bellini.

It was fascinating to see this at the end of week when I saw Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden (review). Under James Hurley’s direction we again were presented with a strong-willed woman rebelling against being forced to marry someone she did not love for the sake of her family …with the almost-inevitable tragic consequences. The Royal Opera offered sex and bloody violence and while Pop-Up Opera didn’t give us any of the former there was plenty of the latter. Their modern dress updating of the story showed us two warring mafia families complete with the use of mobile phones, wielding of pincers, waving of guns and some pill-popping. Having consumed a bottle of pills Romeo expires at the end in ‘the Capulet tomb’ embracing the ‘corpse’ of Giulietta, who was standing up and looking very much like one of the ghosts in Katie Mitchell’s Lucia earlier in the week.

The staging is a very minimalist one but those who are familiar with the wonderful work of Fulham Opera will know what to expect. There was a central slightly raised platform so the performance was ‘in the round’ and there were just enough odds and ends lying around (chairs, a suitcase, a crate etc.) to help set the scene. Atmosphere was provided by fluorescent lighting, mostly static but sometimes handheld all combining to give the proceedings some chiaroscuro. As this bel canto treasure unfolded music director Berrak Dyer did wonders on her electronic piano and it was all inexorably jaunty, melodic, beautiful and upbeat – well, at least until the final few tragic moments in the tomb (the duet Deserto è il luogo) which anticipates similar dénouements in Verdi. Moments when the chorus was needed were recreated by anyone not otherwise engaged onstage or off.

It is possible to understand why Wagner denounced Italian bel canto as being merely concerned with ‘whether that G or A will come out roundly’ and so developed a German school of singing. Nevertheless, this opera did profoundly influence Wagner because, where the first audiences for Shakespeare’s play would have seen male actors as both Romeo and Juliet, here – as typical of the age in which it was composed – Romeo is also a trouser role. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient sang Romeo in Leipzig (1834) and Magdeburg (1835) and created a profound impression on the young Wagner and she was his first Adriano (also a trouser role) in Rienzi, Senta (Der fliegende Holländer) and Venus (Tannhäuser). If Wagner had not been exiled because of his involvement with the Dresden uprising in May 1849, Schröder-Devrient would have also created Elsa in Lohengrin. He continued to laud her stage artistry right up until his 1872 essay ‘On Actors and Singers’ which is dedicated to her memory and this gives Bellini’s opera an interesting legacy.

Pop-Up Opera’s prodigious young talent made a valiant attempt at conveying the spirit of bel canto singing without always being faithful to the detail of note values, ornamentation practise or tonal colour. Naturally Katie Gossett and Alice Privett dominated their scenes as the teenage lovers Romeo and Giulietta. They almost perfectly conveyed the angst of being kept apart and the personal tragedy of their youthful – and somewhat futile – rebellion against their two powerful and opposing families. Gossett’s Romeo stoically endures torture and a beating by Tebaldo and Giulietta’s father, Capellio. Both the leading singers had fine moments and their voices blended well in their impassioned duets but it is Alice Privett who I would most like to hear again. Her Act I Oh! quante volte was both affecting and vocally refined and a highlight of her performance.

The smaller roles were also well cast and it is great how young talented singers – with obvious potential such as these – get an opportunity to show what they can do more and more these days. I must presume a relative unfamiliarity with Bellini’s bel canto and therefore all three did very well indeed. Cliff Zammit-Stevens as Tebaldo believably portrayed the enforcer for the ‘Capo’ (head of a crime family); Matthew Palmer was equally good at showing how Lorenzo was rather conflicted because he had, so to speak, a foot in both camps – yet he does ultimately aid the young lovers if to no avail. Best of all probably was Andrew Tipple’s bear-like, brutish and obstinate Capellio.

Although it undoubtedly would have been better for all concerned if sung in English, the projected ‘surtitles’ (by Harry Percival and Timothy Cape) on two screens either side of the platform kept a very attentive audience on track with what was going on. Some were like silent movie captions/intertitles and, I suspect, intentionally amusing with much use of common vernacular, whilst most intriguing was the juxtaposition of a translation with the original for many of the important arias. This was a splendid idea and one which similar groups would do well to adopt, as it can help inform their audiences more about what they are hearing.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Pop-Up Opera visit


Leave a Comment