Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012

September 30th, 2012

There are several reasons to revive Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”, anglicized as “The Capulets and the Montagues”. The most compelling reason is  the presence in the opera’s cast of singers capable of doing justice to Bellini’s often complex and always extraordinarily beautiful melodies, so soulful that they inspired Chopin’s piano preludes and nocturnes.

The San Francisco Opera brought together two American singers, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and soprano Nicole Cabell, who showed that the art of bel canto has a secure future.

[Below: Joyce DiDonato as Romeo, disguised as the emissary of the Montague family; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The five-member cast was rounded out by a trio of artists who effectively supported the doomed protagonists. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, in his debut night at the War Memorial Opera House, was a mellifluous Tebaldo, and American basso Eric Owens an authoritative Capellio. Adler Fellow Ao Li, a Chinese baritone, attracted attention in the plot-moving role of Lorenzo.

[Nicole Cabell, center, in white dress, is Giulietta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet

Compared with the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and Gounod’s opera “Romeo et Juliette” based on the Bard’s play, “The Capulets and Montagues” is a streamlined story. Juliet, like so many daughters born into families with dynastic objectives, is in conflict between two irreconcilable concepts. She wishes not to offend or betray her family and yet wishes to realize her romantic love for her family’s archenemy, the warrior Romeo.

There is an existential threat to her attempt to balance father and  lover. Her father is determined that she wed Tebaldo. Romeo, amazingly skilled at penetrating the inner sanctum of the Capulets, urges her to elope with him. But, even realizing the great risk, she chooses Lorenzo’s plan to administer a substance causing a death-like trance, with the idea that Romeo will be at her tomb when she awakes. Lorenzo is arrested, thereby preventing Romeo being informed of the planned deception. Romeo poisons himself before Juliet awakes.

[Below: Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Visual Conceptualization

This bare-boned plot provides the production designer limitless ways to present the opera. The provocative co-production of the Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper and the San Francisco Opera, is by French director Vincent Boussard, with sets by Vincent Lemaire and costume designs by Christian LaCroix.

Their presentation abounds in eccentricities, some certain to invite detractors. But basically the stage direction and sets provide the French production team ways of focusing on inherent elements of the Romeo-Juliet story. Juliet is a 15 year old girl raised in a guarded compound. Boussard projects her fragility, choosing physical images of her vulnerabilities and distractions, with sometimes dainty steps or standing in a basin to try to touch a statue far out of her reach.

[Eric Owens as Capellio; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The adversarial forces are clothed in black (except the voiceless women who wear costumes seemingly inspired by Lacroix’ le pouf dresses). Warriors have saddles awaiting them on high.

The death scene is treated imaginatively. As Romeo’s fate is sealed by poison, Juliet stands facing him and laments his death as he sinks to the wall. As Capellio and his men enter the tomb, Romeo and Juliet, hands clasped, walk forward, joined together in an afterlife.

[Below: Romeo (Joyce DiDonato, right) and Giulietta (Nicole Cabell, left) walk together towards eternal light; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Further Thoughts

It is my plan to review the fourth performance of this San Francisco production, at which time I will provide further thoughts on this opera, its place in the history of the operatic repertory, and the three productions seen in California in the last 21 years (the Lyric Opera of Chicago production seen in San Francisco in 1991, the Thor Steingraber production seen at Los Angeles Opera, whose performances at Pittsburgh Opera I have reviewed on this website [see Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008], and the current production).

Each of the productions had their strengths and weaknesses. However, this is an opera that exists because of the music contained in it. It is musically engaging, alternating the elegaic melodies that make the  name of Bellini synonomous with pathos with what I call the Bellinian uptempo rat-a-tat-tat.

I recommend the San Francisco Opera production, for the historically important performances of DiDonato and Cabell, well-supported by an impressive performance  by Pirgu, and solid comprimario work by Owens and Li. Riccardo Frizza’s conducting was admirable. If the production cannot be listed as a world treasure, it is ultimately inoffensive.


For my previous reviews of performances by Joyce DiDonato, see: Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012, and also, Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010, and also, Florez and DiDonato Dominate Los Angeles Opera’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” – December 6, 2009, and also, S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.

For my previous reviews of performances by Nicole Cabell, see: The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012, and also, Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011, and also, Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera – October 16, 2008.

For my previous reviews of performances by Saimir Pirgu, see: Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011, and also, Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009, and also,  Woody Allen’s L. A. “Gianni Schicchi”: Spoofing Italian Films – September 6, 2008.

For my previous reviews of performances by Eric Owens, see: Eric Owens is Vocally Powerful, Dramatic and Emotional in Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 22, 2012, and also, Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012, and also,  “Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011, and also, Strong Cast for Peter Sellars’ Reconceptualization of Handel’s “Hercules” – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 16, 2011, and also,  Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009, and also, Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008.

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