We attended the first performance of "I Capuletti e Montechi", (The Capulets and the Montagues), an Italian opera (Tragedia lirica) in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini, on September 29, 2012, at the San Francisco Opera. I would like to tell you it was glorious and perfect. Well, some of it was -- namely the bel canto singing of Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell. Between acts, some members of the audience were gushing about the beautiful voices -- some saying they had never heard such wonderful singing in this house. It was the definition of bel canto vocalizing -- ravishing sound with superlative artistry. We must hear these two in Bellini's Norma. Put them under contract now because later we may not be able to afford them.
DiDonato is already a known quantity, in demand all over the world. But an equally happy revelation was to hear soprano Cabell as Giulietta. She delivered warm and ample sound with superb agility and technique. We must hear her again in operas superior to this one. Composed in a rush, this work is not one of Bellini's best. The overture sounds shockingly like Rossini warming up for a comedy, not a famous tragedy. The libretto is, shall we say, just bizarre. It strays widely from the famous Shakespearean drama. Even so, this opera can be a musical delight if directed with a few sensible ideas.
So, what went wrong? Just about everything visually. The scenery might have got by with vague palace walls for the protagonists to posture themselves against. But, why did we need a mirror floor unless to see Giulietta's panties and ridiculous puffball wedding gown. Oh please, much of the action was reflected on the ceiling of the opera house! Set Designer Vincent Lemaire (in his US opera debut) has to be blamed for some Eurotrash moments and a bleacher set that was dangerous to watch as the chorus and extras plodded their way up and down. Worst of all, Director Vincent Boussard blundered time and again. His work was a horror of miscalculations and foolishness. In scene 2 our star soprano was forced to climb up and into what looked like a baby changing wash basin while she agonized over having to marry Tebaldo. A font gone wrong. Please banish him from any future efforts at SF Opera.
Costume Designer Christian Lacroix must have decided, if you can't beat it, flaunt it. So he did. What crazy costumes --black and gray cutaways and top hats for the men; lots of garish, brilliant colors for the women. But we really shouldn't bog ourselves down with the visual craziness of this production except to say this team should not be hired again. At the end, only Boussard had the courage to take a bow but was rewarded with a round of boos -- a rare event in San Francisco. The musicians received warm applause.
Conductor Ricardo Frizza did well with this second tier score. This opera must have been one of the over-worked traditional efforts Richard Wagner had in mind when he knew that "music drama" had to get better than this. To be singled out for their superlative playing: harpist Olga Rakitchenkov and clarinetist Jose Granero. The chorus under Ian Robertson was as competent as always. The other soloists, Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo, Eric Owens as Cappellio and Adler Fellow Ao Li as Lorenzo acquitted themselves admirably.