I Capuleti ed i Montecchi

New York City Opera
25 September, 2001
Music:  Vincenzo Bellini
Libretto:  Felice Romani

Tebaldo. . . . . .
Capulet. . . . . .
Lorenzo. . . . . .
Romeo. . . . . .
Giulietta. . . . . .
Raul Hernandez
Jan Opalach
John Marcus Bindel
Sarah Connolly
Mary Dunleavy
Capulet Officers, Montague Soldiers, Mourners
Conductor. . . . . . Joseph Rescigno
* * * * *

Before attending last evening’s prima, this work was relatively unknown to me, with the exception of Giulietta’s "Ah, quante volti", which I had heard sung by Beverly Sills, among others.  Years ago, I heard a recording with Sills and Baker on the radio and did not find it at all interesting, even though the singers were quite good.  So I must consider last evening’s performance my first concentrated experience with this early Bellini work.

This production, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel and direction by debutant Thor Steingraber, was set, as far as I can tell, around the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century, or perhaps a couple of years later.  Capulet and his retainers wore white tie and tails—as well as top hats when the formality of the occasion demanded them.  His officers, including Tebaldo, wore blue officers’ uniforms that might also have been appropriate in a production of The Merry Widow or even Naughty Marietta.  The Montague soldiers appeared to be wearing khaki uniforms from, roughly, World War I.  I found the use of swords, pistols and rifles rather confusing.  Romeo wore a blue blazer, tan slacks and an ecru vest, and looked like an ivy leaguer of the period.  Giulietta wore lovely floor-lenth gowns with high neck and sleeves, as well as a purple dressing gown and a white nightgown.  Giulietta’s mother (a non-singing role?) was dressed as an elegant wealthy lady of around the turn of the century, and she and the women mourners (also mute?) wore absolutely stunning black lace mourning costumes with large black hats and long black veils for Giulietta’s funeral.

The production itself was relatively simple, the floor consisting of black and white marble squares as floor covering, with the various performing areas set off by marble columns.  Other architectural elements, such as windows, walls and the like, were sparse, often coming down from the flies.  Rooms were often delineated by carpeting or a window.  Add to that the turn of the 20th Century costumes, swords, pistols and rifles, and the stage became a rather confusing place to look at.

Now that I’ve illustrated my usual dislike for updating a production, let’s get to the singers.  In my estimation the most magnificent and heartfelt singing of the evening was provided by the Romeo and Giulietta, Sarah Connolly and Mary Dunleavy.  Both have excellent abilities in bel canto style, rich, beautiful voices, over which they both have perfect control, and excellent command of coloratura technique.  And they have proven that to us before in their performances of Il Viaggio a Reims, Abduction from the Seraglio (Dunleavy), and Ariodante (Connolly).  Furthermore, their acting is both sincere and intense, causing us to believe the feelings they so brilliantly express.  Almost in the same category was the performance of John Marcus Bindel as Giulietta’s buddy and confidant, Lorenzo.  His rich and sonorous bass-baritone voice combined beautifully with his committed acting in what I would consider an anachronistic role.  I could see her having a priest as a confidant, as in the Shakespeare and the Gounod.  But this Lorenzo is merely a member of the household.  Was it acceptable for the daughter of a wealthy household of the 14th or 15th century to have a male confidant?  Or, to stick with this production, was it fitting at the turn of the 20th century?  I’m sure there is an explanation for this that I cannot, at this moment, fathom.  I was, however, much more pleased with his performance here than as William Jennings Bryan in last year’s Ballad of Baby Doe.

The remainder of the singers were relatively acceptable.  I am not very fond of the dry-sounding baritone of Jan Opalach, who has been with NYCO for 21 years, but I am sure I have enjoyed him in other operas there.  He is an imposing presence and a fine performer, having large repertoire of baritone and bass-baritone roles at both NYCO and elsewhere.  I first heard the Tebaldo, Mexican tenor Raul Hernandez, in his debut as the Rigoletto Duke in 1998.  I found him unmusical and unacceptable in that role.  Although his voice seemed more suited to the music of Bellini, he displayed the same, annoying Sprechstimme at the end of many phrases, to me, a highly unmusical quality.  Oh, yes, he had some beautiful, ringing notes and even some stratospheric ones.  He is, however, often drowned out by the orchestra.  I wonder if his performances as Massenet’s Des Grieux, Rossini’s Almaviva, Donizetti’s Nemorino and Ernesto—all part of his international repertory—also feature the same Sprechstimme quality he displays in the roles I have heard him sing at NYCO?

In my estimation, the orchestra was beautifully controlled and conducted by Joseph Rescigno.  Furthermore, he assured that they were highly supportive of the singers.

While it is obvious that I did enjoy the evening and especially most of the singers, I was strangely unexcited by the story line.  Yes, I will admit that I have been brought up with a Romeo and Juliet who are "star-crossed lovers".  But that is how Shakespeare and his sources treated the situation.  I was wondering why Giulietta suffers such conflict when considering a departure from Verona with Romeo.  She mentions her duty to her family.  This is not a 14-year-old totally consumed by her love, as was "the other" Juliet.  This Giulietta starts sounding like Chimène in Corneille’s 17th century neo-classical play, Le Cid, or in any number of plays by his contemporary, Racine.  In all these tragedies we have the basic conflict between love and duty or honor.  In fact, in her program notes, Cori Ellison, NYCO dramaturg, tells us that the source of Romani’s libretto was an obscure, early 19th century neoclassical tragedy entitled Giulietta e Romeo.  In true neoclassical tradition, its action is compressed into one day (as opposed to Shakespeare’s five).  Furthermore, its neoclassical focus is the conflict between filial and romantic love, while Shakespeare’s "star-crossed lovers" appear to foreshadow today’s "me generation," thinking nothing about responsibility and duty, but, rather, the fulfillment and satisfaction of their desires and needs.  The romantic and idealistic aspects of the uncontrollable love between Shakespeare’s and Gounod’s protagonists seems to appeal more to today’s society than the conflict between love and duty.  Let’s face it, for us, duty comes AFTER you commit.

-- Howard in Griswold Hall   

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Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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