The praise is fairly unanimous for this latest revival of Pier Luigi Pizzi's 1984 staging of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera House. More than mere set design, it was a couple of outstanding and amazingly cast artists, Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča, that made this production memorable, together with a fine orchestral reading by Sir Mark Elder.
From a critical perspective, Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph notices that sometimes Netrebko and Garanča's voices were missing those Italianate nuances that their parts require and their rendition of the vocal minutiae wasn't always precise. Yet, he states, 'what fabulously healthy voices they both have, and how thrillingly they wield them, through melancholy aria, dramatic declamation and warmly blended duet'. And as George Hall of The Stage remarks, 'Rarely will you hear bel canto sung by such lavish and glamorous voices at the peak of their beauty'.
There is especially one topic that saw the British press sharing the same view, namely Garanča's predominance over an only-just-less astounding Netrebko. The Times' Richard Morrison finds evocative words to express the mezzo's powerfulness: 'Her passagework is as scintillating as her swordplay, her top C is terrific, and she is touching as a proud young man in love'. Barry Millington of the Evening Standard, too, does not hide his appreciation when referring to Garanča's vocal qualities: 'Rising effortlessly to notes that would stretch many a soprano, it descends evenly throughout the compass, avoiding any unseemly changes of register'.
As for Netrebko, her presence on the stage is always the promise of a fervent performance. The Telegraph comments on her role, emphasising a certain lack of refinement which is balanced by unquestionable talents: 'Netrebko presents a Juliet of naïveté and ardour, her fearless spirit reflected in red-blooded singing irradiated by some ethereally floated top notes. You don't look to Netrebko for subtleties of interpretation – she's not a sensitive musician – but there's a passion and commitment in her artistry which charges her with electric star quality'. The Times, too, notices some minor flaws in Netrebko's performance, especially dealing with her dramatic attitude: she is 'too much the sophisticated woman rather than the ingenuous girl'. Yet, the same newspaper acknowledges her expressive mastery: 'her appeal to her unyielding father (the fine Eric Owens) is moving and beautiful, and after that she uncorks some exquisite tone'.
The Financial Times is not equally thrilled by the two protagonists' rendition. Although applauding their talent for letting their voices blend and their ability to engage warmly with their roles, its critic Andrew Clark still finds their approach to Bellini's work immature: 'More likely, Garanča and Netrebko are two “star” singers who have yet to see beyond the beauty of Bellini's lines to the temperament underpinning the notes. […] Netrebko's performance is static and let down by poor Italian diction. Garanča goes through the motions of passion without making us believe it'.
On the other hand, the Financial Times also adds that part of the flaw resides in an insipid production, which ultimately affected the protagonists' performance: 'Both find themselves suspended in an ornamental production […] that offers no wider dramatic context or raison d'être other than as a platform to sing'. The Evening Standard shares the same reservations on the decision to revive Pizzi's staging: 'Pizzi's sets (designed by himself) and deeply unimaginative stage movement were passé even in 1984; today they are unacceptably feeble'.
As for the other musical elements, most critics observe that the chorus offered a strong performance, even if The Times laments that at times it 'could sing with more fire'. The secondary roles were not all homogenously successful. The Stage praises 'Dario Schmunck's feisty Tebaldo' and 'a discerning Capellio from Eric Owens' but is not convinced by an uninspired performance by Giovanni Battista Parodi. The Times has slightly contrasting opinions: while enjoying Parodi's portrayal of Lorenzo, its critic comments that 'Dario Schmunck is a bit pint-sized in looks and voice as Romeo's bitter rival, Tebaldo'.
Sir Mark Elder's contribution to the success of this performance was unanimously received as fundamental, especially for his ability to provide an orchestral counterpoint to the main roles. The Times comments that 'this is sumptuous music-making, with Mark Elder giving a masterclass in how to accompany singers intent on taking whopping metrical liberties with almost every phrase'. The Financial Times finds Elder's conduction to be a 'secure, supple support', and the Evening Standard applauds the orchestra's superb 'backdrop to the vocal riches. And it is Garanča and Netrebko on whom the spotlight indubitably falls'.
Overall, this is definitely a fine revival that gives the audience the possibility to enjoy two stars of the operatic world supported by an excellent orchestral interpretation. Although it is not a perfect production, there's a huge amount of artistry to enjoy. All this, until 11 April at Covent Garden.
Review of Capuleti with Netrebko and Garanča at ROH
Review of Garanča and Netrebko's new DG recording of I Capuleti
Interview with Garanča about this production
Review of La traviata with Netrebko at Covent Garden