Friday, October 5, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi

October 3, 2012

Much is made of the fact that Romani’s libretto for this opera is not based on Shakespeare but on earlier Italian sources (the same ones that Shakespeare drew on for Romeo and Juliet). This does not change the fact that R & J is whirring through the minds of the audience, bringing out all the things that are sorely lacking in I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Primarily, the great poetry and intimacy that builds the central relationship and makes us actually give a damn about their deaths.

Not that San Francisco didn’t try to overcome. In a co-production with Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, SFO threw out every provocative notion they could find to amp up the proceedings. Fashion designer Christian Lacroix brought his rather weighty presence to the costumes, with mixed results. Outfitting the men in late-19th-century top hats brought a certain heft to the power politics but took away the usual menace of the two feuding families (you don’t really anticipate a knife fight breaking out in La Traviata). The dresses for the wedding of Giulietta and Tebaldo (Tybalt), however, were spectacular, each one a mashup of several different outifts from the Bavarian Opera’s wardrobe department. Director Vincent Boussard added a creepy, protofeminist element by having all the women (for whom Bellini had written no vocal parts) hold lovely fake flowers in their mouths, mere ornamentation. The scene took place on a set of bleachers that seemed to rise to the heavens, a provocative comment by set designer Vincent Lemaire on the political import of the wedding. As for the saddles strung from the ceiling – seen it before, not impressed.

My favorite vocal presence was tenor Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo. Pirgu’s middle tones seemed almost too forceful, but once they burst above the staff the top notes were glorious. Forcefulness was also a matter for mezzo Joyce Didonato (an alumna of SFO’s Merola Program), whose sharp timbre as Romeo aided the masculinity of her  presence. As Giulietta, soprano Nicole Cabell sang beautifully above the staff, but everything below came across in an overly covered tone, a sound that may please some but drives this critic insane. Consequently, you had a mezzo who sounded like she was singing higher than the soprano, but when the two came together, in the duet “Si, fuggire: a noi non resta,” the results were magical, notably in the long stretches of unaccompanied harmonies.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza led his orchestra through a decidedly boisterous reading of Bellini’s score, especially in the overture. The bleacher set prevented Lorenzo (Ao Li) from handing the all-important poison to Giulietta (who was busy tightroping a wall), so the invisible bottle was magically transported to her hands. This is when you know that the conceptual thing has gone too far. The penultimate scene provided an intriguing precursor to a scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, which premiered five years later: two romantic rivals interrupted in their duel by a far-off announcement of their dream girl’s death.

Through Oct. 19, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340, 

Images: Ao Li (Lorenzo) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo). Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) with Supernumeraries. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of Operaville, a novel available at

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