I Capuleti e I Montecchi – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Felice Romani
Lorenzo – Giovanni Battista Parodi
Capellio – Eric Owens
Tebaldo – Dario Schmunck
Romeo – Elīna Garanča
Giulietta – Anna Netrebko
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder
Pier Luigi Pizzi – Director, designs & original lighting design
Massimo Gasparon – Revival director
Bill McGee – Original lighting design
John Charlton – Revival lighting design
Mike Loades – Fight director
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 2 March, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
First seen in 1984 (and audio-recorded by EMI for posterity on that initial run, conducted by Riccardo Muti) The Royal Opera House’s production of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” wears its years lightly. The evocative sets and atmospheric lighting provide the perfect backdrop to a bel canto opera which essentially is a vehicle for two star singers who are required to act the parts of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet not only physically but also vocally. There have been starry castings for these roles in most of the revivals since the 1984 original and this latest must be accounted among the better ones.
What particularly adds to the strength of the revival is the orchestral performance. Bellini’s long lines and characterful orchestration comes up as new-minted in a vibrant, theatrical and, above all, pliant account of the score. Many of the instrumental soloists shone in their moments of glory but unobtrusively so – such as the solo cello at the start of the second Act and the horn at the start of the scene where we first meet Giulietta. As so often with this type of opera the harp plays a crucial role in accompanying unhappy damsels and these passages were full of feeling. The brief but repeated side-drum flourishes in the overture were a martial detail that came out afresh too. Above all it was the flexibility of Mark Elder’s approach that shone through – ever alert to the dramatic situation. There was also a telling use of silence in the final scene as well.
Anna Netrebko’s Giulietta is one of her best assumptions for The Royal Opera to date. Not only does her voice have great beauty and lustre but also a great range of colour and the technical flexibility needed for the demanding coloratura. Her interpretation is a more forceful one than most – this Giulietta showed flashes of a strong will in her anguished relationship with both Romeo and her father Capellio. She looked marvellous in the (re-designed?) costume. ‘Oh! quante volte’ showed her ability to spin out Bellini’s long and soaring lines with ease and to dazzle with her luminous high notes, whilst her voicing of ‘Tace il fragor’ showed her ability to inflect lines to evince the confused and anxious girl, the nervy pulsating accompaniment of the orchestra here a vital partnership. Netrebko is a communicative performer who knows how to hold a stage.
Given the strengths of the Giulietta one could have had concerns that the Romeo of Elīna Garanča might have paled in comparison, but her performance not only complements Netrebko’s perfectly but, in terms of complexity and completeness, topped it. Romeo is a hugely demanding role requiring the mezzo-soprano to sing over an extraordinarily wide range, and to portray a wider range of emotions. The young man has to be alternatively love-struck and passionate, martial, proud and sometimes-arrogant and even chauvinistic, and at the end has to fall into the depths of despair to the extent of dying a needless suicide. Hitherto, Garanča has impressed with the security of her singing and her technique, but this role seems to have taken her to a new level. Her voice seemed more powerful than before, most noticeably when placed near those sound-bouncing columns that populate the stage, and her high notes were thrillingly secure and her lowest register strong and mellow. She too has a way of using both dynamic and tone to illuminate text and situation. As the evening progressed, the darker overtones of her voice came into ever-greater prominence culminating in an emotionally direct and powerful final scene.
Garanča and Netrebko’s rather different voices blended together unbelievably well and they interacted credibly. Garanča also cuts a fine figure, capturing perfectly the slim and elegant young noble with a feisty and hot temper and managing to be credibly male in demeanour. Good swordplay too!
The success of the performance largely rests on these two ladies. The remaining roles are less clearly drawn and in some respects ciphers and for which the casting is less extraordinary. Dario Schmunck sang Tebaldo’s early aria well enough, showing a fine sense of line and solid technique but elsewhere there was little light and shade and his voice lacked fluidity of tone. He sounded under-powered in the second act confrontation with Giulietta, and needed to match the extrovert nature of Romeo. Giovanni Battista Parodi’s Lorenzo made his dramatic mark but his voice seems unremarkable. Eric Owens was a suitably implacable and vocally strong Capellio, but his singing needed more bass depths. The male chorus was a solid crew.
This is a fine revival. Lovers of bel canto repertoire and devotees of pure singing will enjoy it. More importantly, those who think these operas are non-dramatic museum pieces will find that there is much than that – you don’t need ‘clever’ directors to create drama if you let great singers loose to do what they do best.