Regietheater has had such a grip on opera production in the last decade or so that it's almost refreshing to encounter something more traditional.
Pier Luigi Pizzi's 1984 staging of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi – mounted for the dream combination of Agnes Baltsa, Edita Gruberova and Riccardo Muti – lets the piece unfold in a shadowy cavern in which tall columns and steps are almost the only elements of scenery apart from Juliet's bed and Capulet's throne and table.
As revived by Massimo Gasparon, the production presents the story in its bleakest, simplest form. Living in a sparse world without comfort or hope, Bellini's presentation of Romeo and Juliet's love is even more tragic than Shakespeare's, since we never even see the lovers enjoying each other's company; anxiety is there right from the start. There's no glamour to Pizzi's production, which follows Bellini's inclination to strip down the drama to its bare essentials: apart from Romeo and Giulietta (Juliet), only Tebaldo (Tybalt), Lorenzo (the Friar Laurence character) and Capellio (Capulet) are depicted, which throws the focus on the two main characters.
The inexorable pull of the final curtain is made all the more dramatic by the opera's quick pace. In only six scenes – and with only six weeks to write the opera – Bellini and his librettist managed to dispatch with an elaborate contextualisation of the family feuds and instead laid the blame at the door of Capulet – a man whose determination not to accept the olive branch offered to him by Romeo in the first scene brings about the lovers' deaths. It's somewhat simplistic, but at the same time tremendously effective. More interestingly, the libretto hints that Giulietta has a self-destructive neurosis from the start, so that she desires death as the way to end her impossible attraction to Romeo. In this sense, death is eroticised in a quite surprising way for Italian opera of the period, and it's surely significant that this revival finds Giulietta stabbing herself to death rather than dying of grief as the libretto prescribes: she must bring about her own demise.
Musically, there's much to admire in a piece that combines the solita forma or 'conventional form' of aria with looser structures. The traditional numbers include two or three of the opera's most gripping moments, including Giulietta's 'Oh! quante volte' and the thrilling Act 1 finale, but it's the unconventional moments of Act 2 that really stand out. Romeo's death scene is particularly unusual, with its fluid form and veristic touches as the character vents his frustration at having committed suicide unnecessarily.
The Royal Opera is fortunate to have secured a dream trio to rival the original triumvirate of the 1984 debut of Pizzi's production. But it's Elīna Garanča's Romeo that emerges as the strongest component of the evening. For one thing, she's remarkably convincing as a teenage boy, combining testosterone and a boyish posture with a hypersensitive spirit. Then there's the voice: steely and strongly projected, her strong mezzo is also flexible and expressive, rising to the challenge of the death scene with apparent ease. Together, these qualities make for a knock-out performance, and to be frank I don't think Tebaldo would have the slightest chance of winning a duel against so formidable a Romeo.
Opposite her, Anna Netrebko's Giulietta is scarcely less impressive, indeed she tends to dominate the scenes in which she appears. Following on from her sterling Violetta last year, Netrebko gave a similar performance in terms of temperament: she threw herself into the part wholeheartedly on opening night, using the full length and breadth of the stage to captivate the audience, and she seemed to be united with Garanča in wanting to overcome the stodginess of the staging by creating detail in her acting. There were a couple of shaky moments at the very top of the voice, but on the whole she retains a wonderful richness of tone. In 'Oh! quante volte' she shades down the volume to a minimum and duets beautifully with the harp, while her rendition of 'Ah, non poss'io partire' – the scene in which she says farewell to her father – she sings with a variety of expression that makes the opera seem utterly modern.
Against these two wonderful performances – which have been immortalised on CD by Deutsche Grammophon in a new recording – the other soloists seem sadly two-dimensional and even provincial. I can imagine Darío Schmunck excelling in more dramatic, high Romantic repertoire, but at this performance he lacked the ease and tonal lustre for the role of Tebaldo. Eric Owens' Capellio has plenty of physical gravitas but just isn't incisive enough vocally, while I felt that Giovanni Battista Parodi's tone was simply too dry for Lorenzo.
On a happier note, Sir Mark Elder's reading of the score was superb. One could easily forgive his indulgence of the two lead singers, given their vocal abilities, and Elder was always sensitive to the balance between stage and pit. Several solo spots for the orchestral players also made a surprising impact, with the principal horn and clarinettist coming away with the honours; that said, there was no avoiding Bellini's slight lack of imagination in instrumentation at times, nor indeed his inclination to favour the voice. Nevertheless, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with accuracy and incision, while the all-male Chorus was at its most rousing.
This Capuleti has unashamedly been mounted as a star vehicle, and it more than succeeds in that respect. A standing ovation for Netrebko and Garanča was awarded by some members of the audience, and the chance to see them perform with such charisma is certainly special. In many respects Bellini could be better served, I feel, and the production doesn't make for visceral theatre. But with this pair on such great form, you surely won't come away disappointed.
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper
Elina Garanca interviewed about this production of I Capuleti
Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko in the new DG recording of I Capuleti
Elina Garanca's new bel canto disc on DG
Elina Garanca as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden