Two brilliant stars overcome bizarre and muddled staging in San Francisco Opera’s “Capuleti”
For its second opera of the season, San Francisco Opera chose Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues), a work it has presented only once before, in 1991. Capuleti is not performed often—the Metropolitan Opera has never staged it—and with good reason. Bellini pulled the opera together in just six weeks, incorporating music from at least two earlier operas, while Felice Romani’s oddly undramatic libretto, derived from 18th and 19th century Italian sources, is based on one he’d written for a different composer. The music is pretty enough, though little of it has the inspiration and powerful characterization that Bellini would put into Norma nor the charm of La sonnambula.
Great singing is about the only reason to stage Capuleti, and the two stars of this show, soprano Nicole Cabell and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato more than fill the bill. Both have the vocal agility, range, and breath control to make Bellini’s long lines and florid outbursts sound easy to sing.
In her company debut, Cabell brings a luscious, dark, and voluminous soprano with plenty of spin to Giulietta, the kind of voice more often found in Puccini than in bel canto. She executed Giulietta’s music with the requisite grace and pathos, not to mention a beautiful trill and fine high notes.
DiDonato, last heard in San Francisco in 2007 as Strauss’s Octavian, is her generation’s great exponent of pants roles, her masculine swagger and penetrating, slightly reedy voice making her a riveting figure on stage. She’s also one of the great living virtuosos in florid music; there seems to be nothing she can’t sing with utter ease and confidence. Her command and virtuosity made Romeo the most convincing character in the opera.
Together, the two made a splendid romantic couple. They would have been even more successful had the staging been more sympathetic and character-focused.
Instead, director Vincent Broussard, set designer Vincent Lemaire, and costumer designer Christian Lacroix, all in their San Francisco Opera debuts, have put together a muddled and static Regie Lite production that neither entertained nor cast the kind of illumination on Capuleti that a thoughtful production by a more gifted director might have rendered.
The very first scene tells just about everything you might need to know about the production. The set is a shallow box with abstract patterns projected on the walls. The chorus of Capulets enters, all dressed in black and gray in early 19th-century suits and stovepipe hats. They’re impossible to tell apart, and even Eric Owens, as Giulietta’s father Capellio, and Ao Li, as Lorenzo, are difficult to pick out of the crowd.
The chorus members are largely planted on stage, and when they do move, the crowd movements are awkward. About thirty or forty leather saddles hang from the flies, despite the lack of horses or references to horses. These reappeared in Act II, carried by members of the one of the warring families for no evident reason.
Broussard contributed a Director’s Note to the program, in which he says the production is designed to “function mainly to reveal the hidden and fragile interior of the characters. . . . The set acts as if a reminiscence of the most elaborate fresco would be sweating from the walls of this palace.”
That would explain why Giulietta spends almost the entire opera in her undergarment, which most closely resembles a modern cocktail dress, why she sings most of her entrance aria standing in a sink, and why she and Romeo are hardly ever within ten feet of each other. This is not how young lovers generally behave, in real life or even on stage. Giulietta comes across not as fragile, but as mentally ill and unable to tolerate normal human contact.
The wedding scene is also bizarrely staged, with the Capulet banquet hall within a giant picture frame and apparently represented by bleachers. Marriage as spectator sport? Giulietta teeters along the edge of the picture frame, and the female wedding guests have giant fake flowers in their mouths—there is no female chorus in this scene—and wear dresses that look like something out of a Tim Burton film. They have to stagger up and down those bleachers in five-inch heels. Perhaps this is all about women’s lack of power and agency, but why, then, would Tebaldo and Romeo look like they spend their Act II confrontation on a balance beam?
The balance of the cast was not always up to the standard set by DiDonato and Cabell.
Tenor Saimir Pirgu, making his San Francisco and role debut as Giulietta’s betrothed Tebaldo, is nothing special, despite strongly positive advance press. He phrased clumsily and tentatively rather than commandingly, sounded foggy, and was glued to either the prompter or the conductor throughout the entire first act. Too bad: Tebaldo has a couple of beautiful solos in Act I, and between the tenor’s wooden demeanor and weak singing, they made little impression.
Adler Fellow Ai Lo, as Lorenzo, sang crisply with verve and compassion, and made a vivid impression. After his recent triumph as the Metropolitan Opera’s Alberich, Eric Owens seemed miscast as Capellio, sounding surprisingly anonymous.
If you can overlook the opera’s inherent weaknesses and the misguided staging, you can still have an enjoyable evening at this opera. Riccardo Frizza’s conducting exactly matches Cabell and DiDonato’s marvelous singing. He phrases exquisitely, never distorting or distending the line, but able to stretch it in a most expressive and dramatic fashion. And the orchestra sounded lovely, with magnificent solos in Act II from principal clarinetist Jose Gonzalez Granero and co-principal French horn Kevin Rivard.