I had seen Shakespeare’s play; I had seen Gonoud’s opera a couple of times; I had seen many, many performances of Prokofiev’s ballet. But at the San Francisco Opera on October 3, 2012, I saw I Capuleti e i Montecchi, an 1830 opera by Vincenzo Bellini for the first time. And from the first few notes of the overture, I knew I was about to see a story different from the one told by S, G, and P.
Sure enough. We saw a group of men looking and sounding belligerent in a surrealist scene with what appeared to be saddles and other warhorse accoutrements suspended from the ceiling. Conversations (in song, of course) soon informed us of many background things:
- that this was the Capulet army, led by the senior member Capellio (Eric Owens) –
- that the powerful Montague army, reinforced by a new alliance and led by the hated Romeo (pronounced Ro-may’-oh) (Joyce DiDonato) was descending upon Verona –
- that in a previous battle Romeo had defeated and killed Capellio’s (un-named) son and the father had sworn blood-vengeance –
- that Capellio’s only daughter Giulietta (Nicole Cabell) is contracted to be married to Tebaldo (Saimir Pirgu), a partisan of the Capulets
Capellio sings that the Montagues are sending an envoy who will propose a peace treaty. Lorenzo (Ao Li), the family doctor pleads that there has been enough killing, but the assembled nobles, led by Tebaldo, will have none of it.
Tebaldo (Saimir Pirgu) sings of his love for Giulietta and vows that he will avenge her brother by making the blood-feud his own.
In a neat bit of illusion the army all exits unobtrusively, the lighting changes to highlight a previously un-noticeable entrance, and we are in a different part of castle. The Montague “envoy” makes a dramatic entrance and turns out to be Romeo himself. He reveals to the audience that is adopting this disguise as a diplomat so that he can see Giulietta with whom he is already passionately in love.
Another shift and we’re back with the army. When Capellio learns that one of the peace terms is that he give his daughter to Romeo in marriage all hell breaks loose. Amid shouts of “War, war”, “Death to the Montagues”, etc., Romeo says, “Okay, if that’s what you want you’ll get it.” He makes a rapid exit as the curtain comes down.
Scene 2. Giulietta (Nicole Cabell) in her room. At curtain her back is to the audience – she is walking slowly away until stopped by the wall – she raises her arms and presses her body against the wall – she is trapped. Surreal? Yes, but also tremendously powerful. The scenery, the lighting, Giulietta’s actions, Bellini’s music –all combine to produce intense claustrophobia. Giulietta is trapped.
Even the single hanging icon which replaces all the martial paraphernalia of Scene 1 adds to the effect. There is no mortal way of escape – a flying superman is required to carry her off. So what does Giulietta do? She sings, of course. She’s being forced to marry a man she doesn’t ‘t love. Because of the impending war the marriage has been moved up from tomorrow to today – right now, in fact. Her lover Romeo has apparently forgotten her. She wishes she were dead. But oh how brilliantly she wishes it. Nicole Cabell may not yet have the same name-recognition as Joyce DiDonato, but her Giulietta is every bit worthy of the latter’s Romeo.
Speaking of whom, guess who suddenly appears! Yep. The “envoy” got “lost” trying to find his way out of the castle at the end of Scene 1 and finds himself in Giulietta’s apartment – apparently not the first time Romeo has been there. And he has a solution! They will elope! Now! Alas, poor Giulietta has been too thoroughly brainwashed. Father’s authority is just too great and has been for all of Giulietta’s life for her to even comprehend eloping. She pleads with him to leave before they are found together. All of this, of course, to some very beautiful music. “You don’t love me,” he wails. “No, I love you too much,” she says and proves it by pulling him down to the floor as the curtain descends in the nick of time to leave us guessing what happens next.
Scene 3 begins with the Capulet court assembled as wedding guests, awaiting only the principals. They are all standing on a tier of steps whose significance is not entirely clear. Does it signify the hierarchal nature of Society or its precarious nature? I found it a bit distracting as I could not help worrying about a real disaster occurring if one of the long-gowned ladies were to stumble while descending the steps. It did lead to some very effective exits since the steps descended to well below the apparent stage level so that a person just disappeared feet first until she was out of sight.
Although both men and women were present on stage we heard only men’s voices. The women all held large flower blossoms in their teeth as a floral description of the fact that women had no voice in the society of that time.
The guests disappear temporarily and Romeo enters with Lorenzo. Although the latter has a relatively small part in the opera, he has the most intriguing personality. He is a man of peace among a society of war-mongers. He is a Capulet but is a close friend of Romeo. Shakespeare makes him a member of the Church – another powerful player in Italy at that time – but Bellini leaves him standing all alone – a complete social misfit. Anyhow, he warns Romeo that his attempt to attend the wedding disguised as a women will fail and put him in mortal danger. Romeo reassures him that he is bound and determined to stop the wedding by one means or another and that his men have infiltrated the castle and will come when he summons them.
There’s considerable coming and going and confronting in the rest of the scene, but by the end of Act I, the two armies are off stage busily hacking each other to death and Giulietta is alone on stage pleased that the wedding has been delayed but miserable about the future and worried about Romeo.
Act II is much closer to the familiar Shakespeare story. Giulietta complains to Lorenzo that she is desperately unhappy and completely trapped. The good news that Romeo survived the battle fails to cheer her. Lorenzo says, “There is a way if you are brave enough to take it.” “Anything is better than this” she responds; “Tell me.” He gives her a little vial and leaves. She hears Capellio coming, drinks the potion. and faints.
At supper before the opera Sara had told me that on her walk that morning she had seen two turkey cocks in full plumage showing off to a group of hens. The ladies were unimpressed and soon wandered off, but the males hardly noticed; they were too busy admiring themselves and didn’t seem very serious when they occasionally made threatening gestures to each other.
I was reminded of Sara’s story as scene 2 unfolded. Romeo and Tebaldo encounter each other somewhere between the castle and the Capulet tomb. Each one claims that Giulietta is to be his bride and they intend to kill the other. Through a lot of beautiful music they circle each other without touching and say what they are going to do to each other – and nothing happens. Finally they draw swords but before they can wield them Giulietta’s funeral procession passes. They are overcome with remorse and each one claims that life without Giulietta is impossible, so please kill me. Eventually they tire of this and wander off in different directions.
The final scene has all the familiar ingredients, but mixes them a little differently. Romeo arrives at the tomb and thinks Giulietta is dead. He sings of his grief, then takes poison. She comes to and sings joyfully when she sees him. He sings her the facts – “I have but minutes to live." They spend those minutes singing beautiful duets and die simultaneously. Montagues and Capulets rush into the tomb, aghast at what they find. Capellio asks belligerently, “Who killed them?” and the crowd all point to him as the final curtain falls.
Falls to wild applause from the audience. As usual in this hick town, the aisle is filled by boors who don’t even wait for the final chord of music but rush madly up the aisles to beat their fellow audience members to the taxi stand or the parking garage. Before most of them have even reached the exit doors, the two principals come out in front of the curtain for a preliminary bow – and we, the audience, rise almost as one to show our appreciation.
I’ve told you in some detail about the story – let me wrap up by talking about the opera. Any performance would be dominated by the two characters Romeo and Giulietta, but this performance was totally and wonderfully dominated by Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell. And by the music composed by Vincenzo Bellini and brilliantly conducted by Maestro Riccardo Frizza. Whenever either or both of those divas were on stage, the hall was transformed. Whether they sang solo arias or duets in sequence or in harmony, whether they sang fortissimo or pianissimo – whether they were stationary or in motion – facing audience or rear – standing, sitting, or horizontal – it didn’t matter. The orchestra was with them in surgical precision. It was an evening to remember.
You too can remember it – but you have to act fast. Remaining performances are:
Thursday 10/11 at 7:30 Sunday 10/14 at 2:00
Tuesday 10/16 at 8:00 Friday 10/19 at 8:00
For detailed information and to buy tickets go to San Francisco Fall 2112
San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
phone: (415) 861-4008
Except as noted, all photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera