Monday, October 01, 2012

I Capuleti e I Montecchi at SF Opera

A rare production of a beautiful 1830 opera by Vincenzo Bellini, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, opened for six performances last Saturday at the San Francisco Opera, and the musical performance was a revelation. The opera immediately became my second favorite Bellini opera after Norma. His La Sonnambula has always put me to sleep rather like its title character, and I Puritani is absurd and basically unstageable, but this Italian, pre-Shakespeare version of the Romeo and Juliet tale is stripped down and serviceable, and the music is Bellini at his best.

The revelation had little to do with this production, which was a high concept affair put together by Frenchmen for Bavaria and San Francisco, in a style that was described at the box office as a cross between Dickens and Edward Gorey (there are saddles hanging from the flies and top hats on the bizarrely staged chorus in the first scene). In a Director's Note, Vincent Boussard writes: "The set acts as if a reminiscence of the most elaborate fresco would be sweating from the walls of this palace." My advice is to sit in the last row of the balcony or stand against the last rail, and simply look at the stage as a color field, and then the silly production almost works.

What is seriously great is the musical performance, starting with conductor Riccardo Frizza, who kept everything lively even when he was pausing to luxuriate in the long Bel Canto vocal lines. The singing is spectacular, as good as anywhere in the world right now, with mezzo Joyce DiDonato playing Romeo (that's him/her in the middle above) and Nicole Cabell making a superstar debut here as Giulietta. The production forced Cabell to sing impossibly difficult, stratopheric arias while balancing on a sink and a platform near the orchestra pit, and after this performance Nicole will never have to do any of that kind of thing again. This is an amazing voice in its prime.

And toi-toi to the female supernumeraries and costume shop workers above who appear for the wedding at the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II, walking and running up and down a series of bleacher stairs while wearing Christian Lacroix frocks and super-spiked heels, a recipe for a serious header. They looked perfectly ridiculous appearing and disappearing offstage under the front stage platform, which made one wonder why the Capuletis were holding Giulietta's wedding in an underground 1980s disco with a Christian Lacroix fashion show going on.

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