Thursday 16 July 2015

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Fabio Luisi, Christof Loy, Alexei Botnarciuc, Olga Kulchynska, Joyce DiDonato, Benjamin Bernheim, Roberto Lorenzi, Gieorgij Puchalski 

Zurich - 5 July 2015

Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi bears little enough relation to Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' as it is, so it's a bit of a challenge to add another level of distance from the original and still meet expectations. But then the director here for Zurich's new production is Christof Loy, so some deviation and modernisation from the original stage directions is expected, and if anyone can make that work it's Loy. Loy is fortunate - but it can't be a coincidence - to be able to work with great performers in such productions. In the case of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the team is an exceptional one, and the new production consequently an overwhelming success.

Essentially what is left of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' in I Capuleti e i Montecchi (the libretto actually taken from another source) is two rival Italian families teetering on the brink of all-out gang war, and a young couple from the two families who want to get married and live a life without fear of the constant feuds and assassinations. It's 'The Godfather' really, Romeo the Michael Corleone of the family, a young man with progressive ideas refusing to inherit the role as the boss of a murderous mob family, but he is drawn in against his will, unable to escape the blood ties that determine how he must act.

Put like that, it seems obvious to stage I Capuleti e i Montecchi in such a way, but it's not at all obvious that it would work or that Bellini's bel canto music is up to the relocation of a more modern setting. Between Fabio Luisi's musical direction and Loy's dramatic direction of it on the stage, it turns out however that it is more than capable of sustaining just such an interpretation. The mood is well established during the overture, the revolving set showing a series of rooms littered with bodies of gentlemen in suits. Bodies piled up in offices, in anterooms, in bathrooms, in bedrooms. We also see a young child being prepared for a wedding, and later see her as a young woman. As the stage revolves and the scenes flow, we see however that she is clearly traumatised by the carnage. Death is all she has ever known.

The mood is sustained by the dimly lit, sepia toned lighting through the Venetian blinds spilling shadowy lines across the wood-panelled sparsely decorated rooms. The rooms are invariably inhabited by powerful men in dark suits and tuxedos, standing around looking threatening. The tension is such that you feel a fight could break out at any moment and inevitably it does, though mostly off-stage, the set revolving like the sweep of a camera pan to the adjoining room where more bodies litter the floor. Loy also brings in an additional non-singing character to shadow the performers. He/she is an adjutant for Romeo, a go-between that permits the otherwise unlikely frequent incursions that the Montecchi Romeo seems to be able to freely make into Capuletti turf to visit Giulietta's room. This silent sinister figure however also incorporates the musical motif of premonitory death that lies between them.

There's a lot more to making the staging of I Capuleti e i Montecchi work than simply dressing the sets and the characters like it were 'The Godfather' although Alexei Botnarciuc gives a great Brando impersonation as Capellio, the head of the Cappelli family. It's Loy's direction of the singers as actors that makes it work convincingly, his use of the stage as ever impeccable, every single scene and movement contributing to the drama, looking cool and stylish. It's not enough however to turn a Romeo and Juliet story into a Mob film, and Loy doesn't neglect this either. You never at any stage (including the violent opening overture) forget that there are other scarcely any less violent passions involved here between Romeo and Giulietta.

Fabio Luisi recognises this too and his conducting of Philharmonia Zürich was remarkable, fully exploring the moods underlying the melodies. With a view of the orchestra, there were occasions when my attention was drawn away from the stage, just to see how Luisi was vigorously and precisely managing the orchestra to marshal Bellini's musical forces in service of the drama. Any distraction however is short-lived due to the increasing tensions that occur on the stage and by the singing performances that interpret them.

If there was rigour in terms of matching the intensity of the music with the dramatic direction, it was only enhanced by a uniformly impressive cast. Joyce DiDonato is not unexpectedly something of a phenomenon as Romeo, convincing in the trouser role, if not quite comfortable wearing the boots it seems. A few high notes were less than secure, but as a whole, the dramatic nature of the role suited her and she sang and played with real intensity. Olga Kulchynska was more than a capable match as Giulietta, her voice soaring with the high drama. Benjamin Bernheim also made a very strong impression as Tebaldo, his performance warmly received by the audience at the curtain call.

This production is now available to view for free streaming on-line on ARTE Concert.

Links: Festspiele Zürich, ARTE Concert