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I Capuleti e i Montecchi
San Francisco Opera
DiDonato and Cabell, Bellini’s Romeo and Giulietta at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver 2012
San Francisco Opera's current production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi marks the first time in more than two decades that the company has produced Bellini's opera. On September 29, the opening night of the run, this Capuleti proved felicitous where it counted most. As the star-crossed lovers of this diaphanous 1830 romance, the Romeo of eminent mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was matched with the Giulietta of rising soprano Nicole Cabell — inspired casting on both counts, with each artist delivering the ripe vocalism and youthful urgency the composer's oft-neglected bel canto score demands.
DiDonato, looking svelte in Romeo's trousers, set the evening's gold standard. From her first entrance, the mezzo's vibrant, lustrous singing and keen dramatic presence created an indelibly anguished hero. DiDonato's voice is a marvel — tender and expressive in Bellini's long-breathed melodies, mercurial in the opera's most intricate passagework — and her ornamentation is focused and flawless. Her Act I duet with Cabell was sublime, and "Deh! tu bell'anima," sung in the Capulet tomb, was ravishing. Cabell's statuesque good looks were an asset for Giulietta, and her lithe, silvery soprano was enticing. She deployed soft, pliant tone in "O quante volte," and her assumption deepened in pathos and ardor as the evening progressed.
Capuleti differs from the familiar Romeo and Juliet story in significant aspects. (Bellini and librettist Felice Romani drew mostly from Italian sources, rather than from Shakespeare.) Tybalt, Juliet's cousin in Shakespeare's play, becomes Tebaldo, Giulietta's betrothed. Tenor Saimir Pirgu, in his company debut, made an unsteady start in the role but mustered firm, ringing tone in his subsequent scenes. Bass Eric Owens sang with customary heft but little dramatic impact as Capellio. Baritone Ao Li projected handsomely as Lorenzo, and Ian Robertson's chorus sounded lusty, onstage and off.
Unfortunately, director Vincent Boussard gave his cast paltry support in this production, co-owned by Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper. Left to their own devices, the male principals milled around, looking indistinguishable from the chorus. Boussard's steampunk style often seemed at odds with the elegance of the opera; set designer Vincent Lemaire hung saddles over the cast in Act I, asked Giulietta to sing perched atop a prie-dieu and filled the wedding party — played on large metal bleachers — with dancehall floozies, their mouths stuffed with flowers. Costume designer Christian Lacroix gave Giulietta an unwieldy flounced dress and put the courtiers in monochromatic morning coats, stovepipe hats and wooly scarves that suggested Dickens's London more than the heat of fair Verona.
It was left to conductor Riccardo Frizza to elicit the beauties of the score, and he did so at every turn, drawing luxuriant playing from San Francisco's responsive orchestra and lending sensitive support to DiDonato and Cabell. The singing was the thing in this Capuleti, and Frizza guided his protagonists with consummate flair.
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