I Capuleti e i Montecchi

 

Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi opera to a libretto by Felice Romani. Directed 2012 by Vincent Boussard at the San Francisco Opera. Stars Joyce DiDonato (Romeo [trousers]), Nicole Cabell (Giulietta), Saimir Pirgu (Tebaldo), Eric Owens (Capellio), and Ao Li (Lorenzo). Riccardo Frizza conducts the San Francisco Opera (Acting Concertmaster Laura Albers) and Chorus (Chorus Master Ian Robertson). Sets by Vincent Lemaire; costumes by Christian Lacroix; lighting by Guido Levi; directed for screen by Frank Zamacona; Master Audio/Video Engineer was Doug Mitchell; Audio Recording Engineer was Michael Chen. Zoltan Glied first reported this title was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling for both its stereo and surround sound versions, and we confirmed this later.  Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio output. This is (we think) the second opera recording to have both audiophile sound and HD TV (our Alcina was the first). Grade: A+

Bellini (in 1830) and Shakespeare (in 1595) both relied on resources that can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance (say, 1350 to 1550). Here are some of the many differences between (1) the Bellini opera as directed by here by Vincent Boussard and (2) the Shakespeare play and the Prokofiev ballet based on the play: 

In the Bellini opera, there's no bawdy nurse, Mercutio, Benvolio, or Paris [instead, Tebaldo is expected to marry Giuliette]. There's no Friar Lawrence [instead, Doctor Lorenzo is a family friend who gives Giuliette her sleeping pill], Lord and Lady Montecchi [as an outcast clan, they are not even allow to visit Verona], Lady Capellio, Duke of Verona, or the apothecary. Romeo is not a teenager and there are no streets with merchants, harlots, and brawling teen gangs [instead, there is civil war]. There's no love-at-first sight or balcony scene [instead Romeo, a hardened war veteran and spy, and Giuliette have been lovers for some time]. There's no elopement or wedding. [Instead, Giuliette, out of family loyalty, repeatedly turns down Romeo's pleas that she leave with him]. There's no honeymoon night [instead, there's a fast, furious, floor fornication (all the "f" words I know) while Giuliette is supposed to be getting dressed to marry Tebaldo]. Both Romeo and Giuliette die, but neither gets to fall down or drape dramatically over a bed or tomb [instead both die standing up and are presented as shades].  Although there is shared grief, there is no cozy reconciliation of families [instead, the future is open-ended].

Critics reviewing this live production in 2012 and the HDVD in 2015 seem to have mostly loved the singing and the orchestra. They mostly hated the direction and designs, which were viewed as Regietheater or Eurotrash. See, for example, Patrick Dillon's condemnation of "nonsense onstage" in his review in the April 2015 Opera News (pages 63-64).

I'll defend Boussard and his artistic team. I Capuleti e i Montecchi is extraordinarily short and streamlined. That's because Bellini and Romani got their contracts on an emergency basis and had a deadline of only a few weeks. They finished the new opera on time by cutting everything extraneous and reworking an earlier opera of Bellini that had failed.

I don't see this opera as a love story: to me, it's a story of the isolation, imbalance, and frustration felt by those who cross boundaries in their lives. So now let's take a look at the direction decisions and designs that were upsetting to opera-goers who thought they were going to see a show about the romance of young love.

Although I see nothing on point in the libretto I consulted about the exact location for the opening scene, the story begins, according to the Act I title screen, in the Capuleti stables. The Capuleti knights have been called to assembly. That explains the saddles hanging from the ceiling, a design decision that puzzled some critics.  There are other references in the show to cavalry, especially a huge out-of-focus and therefore somewhat abstract image of a man on horseback (probably a knight) that is projected on the back wall of the the set for much of the opera. Note here the beautiful, jewel-like colors achieved in relative darkness of the stage:

The civil war between the Capuleti and Montecchi is heating up again. Leonardo (Ao Li), the family doctor and advisor, urges the dominant Capuleti clan to make peace with the outcast Montecchi group:

Lord Capellio (Eric Owens) asserts that he still demands revenge on Romeo, who killed Capellio's son and heir in a battle:

Tebaldo (Saimir Pirgu) declares his love for Giuliette and promises to kill Romeo:

An ambassador from Romeo appears. The ambassador is in fact Romeo (Joyce DiDonato) himself, but the Capuleti forces don't recognise him in his disguise. None of them has seen him in many years when he went into exile as a youth:

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Romeo offers peace if the the Montecchi will be allowed to return to Verona. To seal that treaty, Romeo and Giuliette should marry. The offer is brusquely rejected. But Romeo at least has gotten access to the Capuleti palace and can see Giuliette one more time before she can marry Tebaldo:

Now we visit Giuliette in her chambers. This scene opens with the projection on a front scrim of an image of a statute ("The Lovers" I'll call it). Behind the scrim, a solid curtain rises showing Giuliette in her bedroom behind yet another transparent scrim. When this second scrim rises, the projection of The Lovers dissolves and we see actual sculpture of The Lovers suspended from the ceiling:

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Giuliette yearns to see Romeo one more time:

Giuliette lives in a strange room. The walls are set at an odd angle with no doors or windows. A huge, mysterious frieze is projected on the walls and the lighting changes rapidly in wild colors. The floor is not level and is made of reflective glass. All of this is symbolic, of course, for the tiny, grotesque world in which Giuliette now finds herself trapped as she prepares to abandon her love for Romeo and marry Tebaldo. The only way she can get closer to the banished Romeo is to climb on her sink and reach for the statue of The Lovers. A lot of California critics flipped out when Cabell was asked to get on the sink for a minute or so of singing:

If the upset critics had been readers of this website, they would have known that Cabell's few moments on the sink were nothing compared to what a soprano might be asked to do in a European opera house. Below, for example, is a screenshot from the opera Genoveva where Juliane Banse was asked to repeatedly climb over a yet smaller and more dangerous sink, sometimes even with a rope tied around her neck. And the Genoveva sink was wet with bubbling blood to boot!

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And here's a shot of Isabel Leonard in Così fan Tutte standing high up on a 16"-wide board singing without a safety harness:

So if you are young and trim enough to climb up on things to sing, increase your fee! Here we see Cabell again, trapped in her father's realm and castle, isolated in her own bare room, and now feeling confined like a bird in a cage to a tiny perch:

Until suddenly Romeo makes his surprise visit, and all the colors of the world change:

This is the last moment when Giuliette could change everything by eloping with Romeo. Over and over he begs her to "listen only (to the voice of) our love":

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Giuliette has given her heart and soul to Romeo. But her duty to support her father in his leadership of the clan must take priority over love. "Leave me, and let my father have what is due to him."

Nothing could beat seeing this live in the War Memorial Opera House, but in this video we get, as partial consolation, many fantastic images vastly beyond what most spectators in the opera house could see:

Romeo must leave and Giulietta must go to the alter with Tebaldo. But first, as the curtain falls, there is one more moment of love:

The Capuleti wedding party is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and high-fashion ostentation:

Below: "A fortunate, happy night follows even evil days." The female chorus members rest in this scene, and their only tasks are to wear the Christian Lecroix fantasy fashions along with paper flowers they hold in their mouths:

Romeo has arranged an attack by the Montecchi knights, which is beaten back. Capellio warns the Montecchi:

The lovers prepare to die:

Giuliette's love for Romeo is exposed, and her world in more treacherous than ever before. There is a half-circle "berm" that runs across the front of the stage, and Giuliette tries to keep her balance while walking side-ways across the stage on the peak of the berm. Some critics had trouble with this. But what could be easier to understand? It's a symbol of the frightful balancing act Giuliette has faced and continues to face in her life:

Lorenzo has a solution: if Giuliette swallows a sleeping potion, she will be taken for dead and laid to rest in the family tomb. Romeo will meet her there and take her away:

In the pictures below, the top lines are from Giuliette. The lower lines are from Romeo: 

Romeo dies from the poison he took, Giuliette dies from grief, and we get more impressive video images as the Capuleti show their respect for the corpses they find lying in the tomb:

As mentioned above, the Boussard staging was criticized in the April 2015 edition of Opera News. In that same edition, there's an article about the French soprano Patricia Petibon, who is quoted as follows, "It's important not to forget that you must be constantly seeking modernity. We can't sing in the same way people did fifty years ago." The same thing is true for opera designs and directions. Do you really want to see a bell canto opera set in the middle ages or even in the time of Bellini, i.e. before the invention of electrical devices and medical anesthesia and while Texas was still part of Mexico? Of course there's no actual harm done with staging a opera using authentic historical designs. But if you want to attract new audiences, you have to keep opera fresh and moving forward.

It's in the nature of man to be loyal to his own stock. But it's also in his nature to venture forth, explore, and compete. Shakespeare's play about strife and reconciliation leaves me feeling good about ancient wisdom I've received from him.

But I'm not impressed by any moral lessons handed down to me by Romani and Bellini. What I do get is their examination of the stress experienced by those who cross boundaries by living and loving outside their own region, religion, class, or race. And in the case of the Capuleti and Montecchi we are dealing with the ultimate crossing of boundaries which we today call ethnic cleansing. 

From the Boussard updating, I do get a warning that the atavistic struggle for Lebensraum will never end, unless, just maybe, I do something to stop it. Well, I can't stop it, but maybe I can mitigate the damage in small, particular ways by at least anticipating the struggle. Or if I can't succeed in even that, there's still hope---not in the naive expectation than things will actually get better---but in the sense that my compassionate attitudes and efforts make sense, regardless how they in fact may turn out (Havel). So for me, the San Francisco version of the opera makes the libretto fresh and meaningful. And this in turn makes the beautiful bell canto music more enjoyable and memorable. 

Let's sum up and give this a grade. The music is wonderfully performed and well-recorded. It's the second opera (I think) to be recorded with the current state-of-the-art 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. It sounds great, probably because management decided to record and process this music as well as possible at every stage of the recording-to-playback chain. The video by HDVD-newcomer Frank Zamacona is splendid with rich PQ despite the often dark set and excellent picture content with a good balance of full-stage, part stage, near, and close-up shots. All the singers and the chorus are commendable. In my view the personal directing, sets, costumes, and lighting all bring current state-of-the-art treatment to bear on pitiful problems that we learn of every day all over the world in our newspapers and television new reports. And all this comes from something written almost 200 years ago in bell canto Italy.  I wonder if Bellini and Romani knew how good they really were. Grade: "A+"

Here's the EuroArts trailer: