Thursday 19 February 2015

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (La Fenice, 2015 - Webcast)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2015

Omer Meir Wellber, Arnaud Bernard, Jessica Pratt, Sonia Ganassi, Shalva Mukeria, Rubén Amoretti, Luca Dall’Amico

Culturebox Internet Streaming - 18 January 2015


The greatest love story ever written, Bellini's version of 'Romeo and Juliet' is perhaps not the greatest opera ever written, but it was the composer's first great success and is a work that can be seen as clearly leading the way towards La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. As is often the case with the less well-regarded works of bel canto, I Capuleti e i Montecchi can however be transformed into something greater with the right production and the right leading lady. The new production in Venice, bringing the work back to where it was first performed in 1830, is perhaps nothing special, but it's good enough to support a terrific performance from one of the greatest bel canto singers in the world at the moment, the young Australian soprano Jessica Pratt.

There are considerable differences between 'Romeo and Juliet' and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and most of them can be put down to librettist Felice Romani working not from Shakespeare's original drama but an 1818 Italian version of the drama written by Luigi Scevola, which he had already been adapted for Nicola Vaccai's 1825 opera Giulietta e Romeo. Much is inevitably cut for concision, losing many of the secondary characters and situations, and even a few of the big ones. Before the opera starts, Romeo has already inadvertently killed Juliet's brother in a conflict between the rival families of the Capuleti and the Montecchi, and even the families have been drawn back to their original political divisions of Ghibellines and Guelphs.

None of this is any kind of a hindrance to the essence of the central romantic drama between Romeo and Giulietta, although there are evidently differences in the development of their relationship and in how the tragic events unfold. The rivalry that makes their love impossible is still there between the opposing families or political factions, and that provides opportunities for plenty of tense, dramatic choral pieces. It would help the opera if Romeo and Giulietta can have a few good duets and arias to air their troubles, and those are well catered for in Bellini's fine settings of Romani's libretto. It all culminates in a dramatic scene where Giulietta 'dies' just as she is about to be married against her will to Tebaldo, but there are also opportunities for Romeo and Giulietta to see each other die in a way that can be reflected in emotional outbursts of singing to add even greater emphasis to the tragedy.

Arnaud Bernard's production for La Fenice responds well to the situations and gives the performers the right context to deliver on Bellini's settings, but it doesn't really have anything significant to add to the work. As a co-production with Athens and Verona, it undoubtedly has to work for each venue and can't be too adventurous (not that Verona can't be adventurous if there's still spectacle involved as in their La Fura dels Baus Aida), but really, this I Capuleti e i Montecchi is to all intents and purposes a period production. It uses the now familiar framework of paintings in a gallery coming to life, but unlike say Alvis Hermanis' Il Trovatore, which can be seen to be about storytelling and history, it doesn't seem to have any real conceptual purpose.

Visually however, it looks well and suits the basic dramatic purposes the work. At the start, on the rise of a curtain, the Capuleti come alive and surge out of a large painting that has been stored in the basement or workshop of a museum. If you see it as nothing more than La Fenice bringing an old master out of the archives and Bellini's music still being capable of invigorating it with life, then it makes its point, albeit not a particularly original one. In the main, other than one or two modern gallery art restorers and transportation staff moving things around, and a few freeze-frames of the action settling back into picture poses, the production gets away with just being a period costume drama.

What is perhaps more important as far as direction goes, is that it allows all the drama and romance to work within this concept and it gives the necessary space for Romeo and Juliet to do their stuff. If that's means that their final moments take place on a workshop table in a museum basement rather than on a bier in a period Veronese location then it's really of little consequence. It works just as well because Romeo and Juliet are singing like their very lives depend on it. And in essence, that's the strength of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. It was written to be brought to life by a great soprano and a great mezzo-soprano, which means that it was written, as far as we're concerned, for Jessica Pratt and Sonia Ganassi. And, forsooth, if they don't indeed make it their own...

Jessica Pratt is, quite simply, phenomenal. And that's not the first time I've said that about one of her performances. She excels as a lyric soprano in bel canto roles, and if she doesn't quite have the force for more dramatic roles, she can nonetheless translate the coloratura of a Rossini, Bellini or a Donizetti heroine into a thoroughly dramatic performance. And not just in the high-end coloratura, but with great technical ability and control, she demonstrates that just as much can be expressed with intensity in softer, more intimate scenes. Pratt is a convincing actress too, looking the part in her flowing locks and plunging gowns, even if the demands of this role hardly extend beyond traditional romantic opera heroine swoons and gestures.

Sonia Ganassi doesn't quite have the same glamour in the mezzo-soprano trouser role of Romeo, but she has a vital part to play and proves to be more than capable for the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role, and gives an impressive performance, working well with Jessica Pratt. Those are the roles that really matter here, but there were good performances also from Luca Dall’Amico as Lorenzo (Friar Laurence), Shalva Mukeria as Tebaldo and Rubén Amoretti as Giulietta's father Capellio. Omer Meir Wellber conducted the orchestra of La Fenice with a good balance between the lyrical content and the dramatic edge to Bellini's music.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice