Isabella was seated at a table next to the window, her back straightened against the traffic flowing down the street, her dark eyes trained on the door, waiting. Though it had been nearly five months since I saw her last, it soon felt like a matter of days as we quickly fell into our easy rapport, despite everything that had transpired during this long interlude. She had been in Prague, among other places, taking in a dreadful Carmen and a sumptuous Traviata amongst other things during her trip, and she had much to say about it all.
I asked her what she was doing now, and she replied "I'm writing a solo piece. It's about Wagner and sex. You figure prominently in it."
After pausing a moment to take this in, I wondered aloud, "Is it comedic, or what?"
Her response straddled the line between prolixity and obfuscation before settling gently on an admission of indecision regarding her direction.
Finally she trained those eyes on me, which now looked like black pools above the pearls roped around her neck and said, "So how are you?"
I looked down at the cup of jasmine tea before me, realizing I could only give her what amounted to a superficial account in the time we had left before we had to make our way across the street, and left most of the story concerning these past months spent in the company of Thaïs for another time, though I knew she curious about it all.
Like many people, I suppose, Puccini's operas were the doorway leading to my love of the form. He was eventually replaced by Verdi as the favorite, who in turn lost out to Wagner. Along the way I developed an appreciation for the works of Donizetti, and an ever-increasing awe for those by Rossini.
Bellini, on the other hand, never gained a place in the standings. How could he? He composed less than a dozen operas, fewer than half of which are ever heard. However, the quantity really isn't the issue- Bizet, Mascagni, Leoncavallo are just a few of the one or two-hit wonders whose works will get me to the house. No, the problem with Bellini is that everything he did well, and there is much that he did indeed do well, Verdi, and to a lesser extent Donizetti, borrowed and improved upon. Improved upon greatly, in fact, and when one becomes familiar with the work of the original only after digesting that of his more talented successors, well, there you have it.
Even Norma, his crowning masterpiece, is something I can barely tolerate due to its absurd plot, the most preposterous in all of opera's standard rep.
So it certainly wasn't the opportunity to hear some Bellini which made me want to see I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues), but rather it's the exceptional cast, especially the return of Joyce DiDonato, whose career seems to be hitting its peak right now, and let's hope it's an extended one.
Prior to seeing it for myself, I read the many scornful accounts of this particular production which made it seem just short of being completely incomprehensible or comparable to so-called "Eurotrash," for which some folks seem to have such a distaste (I appreciate Eurotrash, btw, but then again I also appreciate Russ Meyer films and The Spice Girls, so perhaps this shouldn't surprise you). I found it to be neither trashy nor incomprehensible, and while it's certainly not brilliant, it serves the opera, which is second-rate to begin with, reasonably well.
Comprised of two acts with three scenes in each, this co-production from the Bavarian State Opera wasn't designed for this house, so there are ungodly long set changes between each scene that kill what little momentum there is to begin with and only once seemed worth the wait, when the audience applauded as the curtain rose for Scene III in Act 1, though it's hard to say if the applause was for the tableaux vivant opening featuring a riot of color from costume designer Christian Lacroix, or if the audience was just happy to be getting on with the show.
The opera opens with a chorus of Capulet supporters gathered onstage in the Capulet's palace, suspended above them are sleek English riding saddles, polished to the point of fetishism (and by all means feel free to insert Marx's theory of commodity fetishism in here if you like), suggesting a climate of aggression and battle, albeit a highly-stylized one. They're just hanging there, a hovering presence signaling something violent is in the air, waiting to come into play. Tebaldo, performed by Saimir Pirgu in his company debut, gets a couple of choice arias in this scene, during which he displayed a nice tone but failed to nail it at the top of the range. His stage presence was far from commanding as he vowed to avenge the death of Capellio's son (Juliet's brother). Eric Owens, a singer of terrific talent and ability, is largely wasted in the role of Capellio and he seems to know it- his performance lacked the spark which seemed an inherent part of his stage persona in the previous times I've seen him. Then DiDonato as Romeo enters in disguise, her face so garishly lit from below I though she had on a mask, and blah, blah, blah- you know this isn't going to work out very well for Romeo. During all of this, and for the rest of his appearance throughout the opera, current Adler Fellow Ao Li made a great impression in the role of Lorenzo, the family physician.
Scene 2 opens with a statue of two lovers creating a Pieta suspended above Juliet's almost-bare room. It's a gorgeous effect, and has powerful implications during the scene, which in the one really interesting directorial choice, is played as a mad scene for Juliet. The only thing onstage besides the statue are the walls of Juliet's room and a sink- an ugly one, reminiscent at first of the kind found in a cell, which is anchored into a wall. Juliet sings her song of woe, she slowly makes her way to the sink, then into the sink. At first it looks like she's approaching a fountain, and as the scene unfolds it becomes one of a woman performing an ablution. After performing the ritual she stands in the sink, yearning to touch the Pieta of the lovers, which remains beyond her grasp in every sense. To bash Bellini again, this most beautiful part of the opera was stolen - it's essentially a re-write of "The Willow Song" from Rossini's Otello. Nicole Cabell, making her company debut as Juliet, was radiant and convincing in this scene, and if she doesn't have the type of voice one normally associates with bel canto, it's not a problem here as she unleashed one gorgeous legato line upon another.
Romeo then enters, and here's where Bellini's decision to use the source material of the story instead of Shakespeare's version of the tale becomes problematic for this production. Rather than embrace one another, the two lovers force themselves into separate corners or against opposing walls of the cell/room all while singing of their deep and profound love for one another. The result comes across as two young people lost within in their own individual, personally created isolation and familial alienation, and they are mistaking the resulting confusion and conflict for love. The problem for the audience is that if the kids don't come across as lovers, but instead seemed just confused kids playing at being lovers, the whole thing goes off the rails, and it did, despite the efforts and gorgeous singing of DiDonato and Cabell, who couldn't make it come truly alive.
Scene 3 has the Capulet chorus re-enter with the saddles now on their shoulders, ready for action. There's much congratulating Capellio on the imminent wedding. Romeo vows to stop all of this nonsense, and then his real identity is revealed. Uh-oh. This lasts for about half an hour, and the when the curtain comes down if you feel a bit tired, you should- it's been a long hour and a half so far.
Act II opens with Lacroix-clad female wedding guests doing a walk of shame up bleachers to disappear into another set of bleachers beyond the back wall of the stage. I've read that the women appear onstage with flowers stuffed in their mouths at some point in this opera, and this may be the scene, but I didn't notice- I was too busy looking at the shoes. I have a bit of thing for high heels. I was still thinking about the shoes during part where Lorenzo brings the potion, Juliet drinks it, and then begs Capellio for forgiveness. None of this erased the shoes from my mind. I wanted more shoes.
Scene 5 finds Romeo at looking into a vanishing point on the horizon, singing a lovely aria reflecting his diminishing future options. Then Tebaldo entered the scene and was facing off against our hero, which unfortunately at one point had him (actually her, remember) bending over with his rear facing the audience. I found myself thinking Romeo has a really nice ass. Now Isabella had been given a behind-the-scenes tour of this production and had seen the costumes up close, and knew some details which she had imparted to me during the intermission- the costumes were exquisitely crafted and had many fine touches the audience would never even know were there, including gorgeous undergarments of sheer, luxurious fabric. As Romeo bent over, and I hate to admit this but I will, I found myself deeply engaged in an internal debate on exactly what kind of undergarments Romeo was wearing and this continued to occupy my mind for quite some time.
My attention eventually shifted to the abstract pictures slowly morphing their way into various images against the backdrop of the walls of the Capulet's palace, which now seemed to be showing a bulimic Geisha who is slowly dying while Romeo is consumed by feelings of abandonment, his despair now equaling Juliet's as Tebaldo declines to kill him.
In Scene 6 Romeo enters Juliet's tomb, where she's unresponsive to his pleas for her to wake up. He's so bummed he takes the poison too. Juliet rises and does the tableaux vivant of the dead, quite well actually, while Romeo sings his heart out. DiDonato was at her best in this scene and Cabell stood motionless with her arms raised in what must have been an excruciating pose. Juliet comes alive, explains it was all a ruse, but it's too late now, of course. The couple sing together beautifully, but again the lack of physical interaction between them undermines the message, rendering them ultimately as pretend adults playing at being lovers. Bellini scored this penultimate moment beautifully, and as the last note of "Giulietta" passed from DiDonato's lips the magic was palpable. That should have been the moment the curtain fell, but unfortunately Bellini then has everyone rush onstage for a crash and bang ending ala Cavalleria Rusticana and absolutely ruins what could have been a sublime ending. Dolt.
Riccardo Frizza did a fine job with the orchestra.