Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Buxton Festival 2016
Justin Doyle, Harry Fehr, Luis Gomes, Stephanie Marshall, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Jonathan Best, Julian Tovey
Buxton Festival - 20 July 2016
Opera, if you want to try to pin it down to a popular definition, is an artificial narrative construct given a heightened reality through music and singing. The archetypes that would best fit this definition in the consciousness of the general public are those that go for the heightened emotional jugular - La Traviata, La Bohème - but it's practically the entire raison d'être for the bel canto style of opera. Bellini's work evidently fits the bill, and while Norma and I Puritani might be better known works, it's I Capuleti e i Montecchi that probably best meets the definition of the popular archetype.
Shakespeare would have a lot to do with turning the historical struggle between the political factions of the Guelph and Ghibelline into the two rival households of the Capuleti and Montecchi into what has become the archetype or by-word for the romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, even though Bellini doesn't use Shakespeare as his primary source for I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Just like Shakespeare however, the story gives Bellini everything he needs to make this an operatic drama of the highest order.
Harry Fehr's production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi for the 2016 Buxton Festival would seem to be reaching for all those grand archetypal moments and images that everyone can relate to in Shakespeare's version and in Bellini's operatic interpretation. You have to really, as expecting realism or naturalism in a bel canto opera isn't going to get you anywhere. You do however need to find a balance that creates real insurmountable obstacles that only lifts the love story of Romeo (from the Montecchi family) and Giulietta (from the rival Capuleti family) to a higher romantic reality.
Several recent productions have reached for strong imagery to match those heightened sentiments. Arnaud Bernard brought a grand tableaux to life in a museum in his La Fenice production, and Christof Loy drew on imagery from the Godfather for a successful production in Zurich. Buxton also go for a mix of iconic imagery that strives to match the heightened passions of Bellini's writing, depicting the Capuleti as a military unit in army uniforms and the Montecchi in the dark dress of undercover operatives or even terrorists. It's not so much to make any contemporary allusion as much as find imagery that strikes a note of deep conflict and danger.
Yannis Thavoris's set design don't present a lot of variety to the scenes, and there's precious little traditional Verona here, but the set does capture a sense of the external and the internal reality in a clever way. The Capuleti compound is surrounded by a secure fence topped with barbed-wire that at the same serves as the walls of the bed chamber where Giulietta is kept, the two blending into one. It works on a functional level too, the world outside the wire cage masked by black curtains into which figures emerge and dissolve. It could be a barrier that is meant to protect from threats from the hated Montecchi, but it could just as easily be there to keep Giulietta locked inside.
As seemingly insurmountable as this high fence and the armed protection ought to appear, it's still not enough to keep out Romeo, whose love for Giulietta is such that no barrier will stand in his way. Despite having unintentionally killed Giulietta's brother in a dispute, Romeo is able to come and go much as he pleases in this opera, entering the compound in disguise, as a 'goodwill ambassador' and simply just as the necessity of the plot demands. Such contrivances are fine if there is at least an element of danger present in his incursions, and all the military regalia and security measures give that appearance.
The set, costume design and direction all go some way to establishing the necessary tone for the artificiality of the narrative, but it's the music and singing that really carry the full extent of the heightened emotional reality in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Justin Doyle's musical direction led the Northern Chamber Orchestra through the rattling dramatic twists and turns, while the dramatic and singing performances of the cast were all terrific. It would serve no useful purpose to compare anyone to Joyce DiDonato in the role of Romeo - that's a whole different order of performance - but Stephanie Marshall carried the mezzo-soprano trouser-role well on her own terms. She hit all the necessary points, matching the raised tensions in the drama, and in a production where there were many stand-offs with pointed guns, that was very dramatic indeed.
Sarah-Jane Brandon was also great as Giulietta, probably the stand-out performance of the evening really. The beautiful but drama-stalling love duets in this opera would have been much duller without her intensity. There were no weak points anywhere in this cast however, with Luis Gomes a bright and fervent Tebaldo and Jonathan Best an imposing and even dangerous presence as Capellio, Giulietta's protective father. Unlike Shakespeare's drama, where the families united in grief for the harm that their feud has wrought, I Capuleti e i Montecchi ends on a note of anger. As the culprit blamed for it all, Capellio got his just desserts in this production a bloody manner that matched the crashing finale that was fully in the spirit of this strong production.
Links: Buxton Festival