Two brilliant stars overcome bizarre and muddled staging in San Francisco Opera’s “Capuleti”

September 30, 2012
By Lisa Hirsch

Nicole Cabell as Giulietta and Joyce DiDonato as Romeo in San Francisco Opera's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi." Photo: Cory Weaver

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.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi runs for five more performances, through October 19.  

6 Responses to “Two brilliant stars overcome bizarre and muddled staging in San Francisco Opera’s “Capuleti””

  1. Posted Sep 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm by Richard Valenti

    I completely disagree with the writer of this review: are you sure you were at the opera last night?
    Production was superb in general, I really enjoyed the direction and the costumes. The revelation of the evening was the Albanian tenore Saimir Pirgu which debuted as Tibaldo: simply magnificent, powerful voice, but at the same time wonderfully soft, secure high notes, few people nowadays are able to sing this difficult role. Nicole Cabell was a very good Juliet, creepy pianissimo, sweet voice and well-connected, well-suited to the role. Unfortunately, the performance of Joyce Di Donato was not up to that of Pirgu and Cabell: the voice was too often forced with a vibrato in high notes too annoying.

  2. Posted Oct 01, 2012 at 9:24 am by Charlie the Phone Guy

    Sorry Richard, but I completely agree with Ms. Hirsch. The production was the silliest and most ridiculous that I can remember at SF Opera – and I’ve been going for 20 years. The direction was pathetic and did little or nothing to propel either the story, or what was actually being sung in the libretto. I nearly had to leave the audience when Giuletta starting singing in the sink – I had to literally bite my lip so as not to burst out laughing. I mean – really? – singing in a sink? And, yes, poor Giuletta seemed to be more psychotic than conflicted in her extended mad scene. Those poor super-women were visably uncomfortable as they tentatively clomped up and down the stairs – one broke a heel and took off one shoe, which made her exit even more noticeable (in an unfortunate way). I too couldn’t tell who was singing during the crowd scenes. On the other hand, the singing by the two principals was glorious, but please don’t spend big bucks to see this dog-of-a-production. Go standing room for ten bucks or get an upper balcony seat – you’ll get the best sound the Opera House has to offer, and you’ll be blessedly as far away from the stage as you can get.

  3. Posted Oct 01, 2012 at 4:17 pm by Patricia Rodriguez

    Charlie, regarding the super women, they were fleeing in terror from the Montecchi mob, which was intent on mayhem. Some took off one shoe or both shoes, as directed, to escape faster. Women do not generally plan to run up and down stairs when they wear very high heels to an event. So, their clumsiness and discomfort while escaping was part of the production.

  4. Posted Oct 02, 2012 at 12:53 am by Gary Getz

    One word: unwatchable. If anything, Ms. Hirsch is far too kind in her description of the visual mess with which we were presented. Sad to say, a return to the Rosenberg era of dismal staging, monochromatic costuming, and direction so intensely devoted to Communicating Something Really Important that it descends to the level of farce.

    Too bad, as the lead singers were spectacular. We had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Cabell this summer in Santa Fe, and were once again treated to some luminous singing. Ms. DiDonato was also in fine form, in my view. Mr. Pirgu is another Santa Fe favorite of ours — he was marvelous in the Traviata there a few years ago with Natalie Dessay — but on this night it seemed that he might have been fighting through some vocal problems. A cracked high note early on and a somewhat strained sound throughout.

    Saddles, standing in the sink, crawling along the wall, lurching down the ledge of the “picture frame,” clunking up and down bleachers in stilettos, fake flowers in the mouth (one spat out by Romeo when he emerges from his feminine disguise, causing what I am sure were unintended laughs in the house), characters vanishing offstage while being sung to, only to re-enter, stiffly, a moment later, duellists without weapons but one acting as if he is walking on an invisible tightrope — the list goes on and on. The only reason I kept my eyes open at all was to see what misguided antics would be next.

    C’mon, Mr. Gockley — you were brought in to rescue the Opera after faithful patrons suffered through 5 years of thin gruel like this truly awful production. Don’t go back there now, or we’ll all be a lot worse off…

  5. Posted Oct 04, 2012 at 2:21 pm by Paul W. Hobson

    Would have made great radio …

  6. Posted Oct 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm by Benjamin

    By performance 6, closing night, this production was cooking on all 5 burners. Superb singing and with the exception of Giuletta’s having to climb all over the sink, I really enjoyed the show.

    Thought this a masterful night in the theater thanks to the singing of Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell. Ladies, I can’t imagine better bel canto singing. Your voices matched like angels.,