Bellini's response to the Romeo and Juliet legend, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, owes little to Shakespeare yet has what one might call a Shakespearean grasp of the theatre. Whatever the flaws of Orpha Phelan's new production for Opera North, one really can appreciate how the Italian composer strove to create interesting musico-dramatic scenarios.
Prime amongst them is the marvellous scene in Act 2 when Romeo and Tebaldo fight a duel but are interrupted by the appearance of Giulietta's funeral procession, here staged beautifully on a raised platform at the back. The two characters sing parlante of their shock over the gentle chorus coming from the rear of the stage and are then united in a duet of grief, representing a transition from a desire to murder to a desire to commit suicide. The scene brings to mind aspects of both the Pilgrims' Chorus from Wagner's Tannhäuser and the brief duet between Carlo and Filippo in Verdi's Don Carlo that takes place immediately after Rodrigo's death (where the characters briefly stop sparring and are brought together in the same emotion of bereavement). Since both later composers admired Bellini at various points in their careers, it makes sense that they drew from this source, showing just how influential Bellini's works were over the future of opera.
Opera North's production transports the story fairly unambiguously to modern-day war-torn Ireland, creating overall a striking setting in which to play a story about the ways individuals become the innocent victims of collective feuds. This picks up well on the opera, whose strength is the contrast between public action and private passions, and Phelan succeeds in making the singers act with a lot of detail and precision. They never move awkwardly, and the modern setting only seems incongruous when Bellini's employment of bel canto clichés in the orchestral and choral writing verges on the banal rather than the jocular macabre.
The composer's strength, of course, is his vocal writing, and those long Bellinian lines create a bewitching, entrancing atmosphere that Phelan and her designer, Leslie Travers, mirror in the production. The visual highlight is the staging of Giulietta's romanza,'Quante volte', which has her lying on a raked floor while a reflective ceiling gradually descends at an angle to leave her 'imprisoned by her love'. Other things are rather silly, such as the pantomime during the overture in which the Capuleti arrive one by one at Capellio's door and have to give a sign in order to gain admittance. I also personally don't like the fact that there's not much sense of location about the production, which tends to give us metaphorical images such as barbed wire dangling over the stage. Nevertheless, it's an interesting way of presenting the piece and certainly shows conviction in both libretto and music.
Still, it has to be said that the main reason to attend is the knock-out performance of Sarah Connolly as Romeo; a shame that more people didn't turn out to see it. I found her approach to this music invigorating, largely because, ironically enough, it was almost old-fashioned in its values. The inclination in recent times to perform the bel canto repertoire with a spinto rawness has led to a rejection of line and beauty in some quarters, but Connolly's sense of the Classical structures of Bellini's extraordinary vocal writing results in a wonderfully rich sound through every curve and step. That's not to say that she doesn't also have a sense of the dramatic – far from it – but I deeply admired her faithfulness to the text.
That's one respect in which I was slightly less impressed with Marie Arnet's nevertheless very fine Giulietta: she played with the libretto and music just a little too much for my taste. I also doubt whether she could make the same impact in a larger theatre than The Lowry, but one shouldn't take away from her achievement here: the youthful romantic intensity of the character was vividly portrayed, and the flexibility of the voice was admirable.
The other singers were less consistently good, though Edgaras Montvidas' Tebaldo had his moments of vocal allure and Nikolay Didenko's Capellio was authoritative and bold; Henry Waddington's undersung Lorenzo was perhaps a bigger problem.
One issue with the performance musically was poor tuning by both musicians and singers. Too often singers came to an end of a cadenza in a different key than they started in, and there were some blips in the brass. However, Manlio Benzi conducted with passion and style, despite the need for more momentum in the rather long first act.
This is a quality show, though, and with Connolly on such good form it shouldn't be missed.
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