Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An immersive, real-time I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Zurich Opera

                            Olga Kulchynska as Giulietta and cast
If there are problems with Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) they weren't apparent in the capable hands of Zurich Opera and director Christof Loy's dramatisation. One of the many interpretations of the story of Romeo and Juliet, not even Bellini's casting of Romeo as a mezzo-soprano gets in the way, with Joyce Di Donato's boundless strength and conviction making sure of that. And if it felt far removed from a Shakespearean construct, it owes a little to Felice Romani, Bellini's librettist who based the work on an Italian source (Luigi Scevola's 1818 play Giulietta e Romeo) rather than Shakespeare's, and much in Loy's compelling retelling of an archetypal story.

Many times removed from its origins and set centuries later, Loy honours Bellini and the art form of opera while presenting a legible, incalculable tragic drama of mini-series proportions, located somewhere in the second half of 20th century Verona.

Loy sets a fast pace to match the often quick tempo conductor Fabio Luisi establishes in the pit, the rotating stage motor powering hard as scene after scene is revealed with not so much cinematic flow but real time immediacy. During the almost 5-minute overture alone, the story's outcome is revealed as a five-part rotate turns through eight scenes which include the aftermath of conflict with bodies strewn across the stage and the empty gaze of a young girl caught up in a tragedy. Since the story is already widely known it doesn't destroy the progression but, on the contrary, it established the concept and raised curiosity marvellously.

Olga Kulchynska and Joyce DiDonato
Stripped away from its original Medieval setting, Christian Schmidt's designs gave spatial variation across the Capuleti compound, its bland plaster and timber-panelled austerity framing a conservative, proud and powerful family. Stiffly elegant costumes in black tie for the men, long gowns for the women suited an imminent wedding. And yes, if a female could be cast for Romeo, why not have men cast as women as Loy did for some of the male chorus in an Act I scene. It wasn't even apparent at first but it was convincingly scene-appropriate. Franck Evin's often diffused or gloomy lighting assisted and the overall visual impression lent a remarkable sense of presence as if each window or opening was a direct link to a real world.

This world expressed the cold discomfort of the two warring families, the Capuleti and the Montecchi, as if linked to an organised crime syndicate, no guesses there. The concept, too, transferred very comfortably with the libretto but the greatest power came via an excellent cast.

The conviction Joyce DiDonato brings to Bellini's Romeo is immense. DiDonato portrayed a desperate single-mindedness in Romeo's shrewd pleas for brokering a peace deal with the Capuleti which would see him marry Giulietta. After failing, the same desperation is directed towards Giulietta in attempts to convince her to elope with him which DiDonato embodies with the valour of a saviour. Naturally, it was the voice of one of the great mezzos of today that was being scrutinised and DiDonato made it very clear her range, stamina and expressivity are in excellent shape, from fierce voluminous grit to notes filed down to infinitesimal beauty.

Olga Kulchynska and Joyce DiDonato

Soprano Olga Kulchynska beguiled, capturing the troubled Giulietta with a powerful demeanour as vacant as the spaces themselves. Kulchynska's vocal artistry painted everything from angelic purity to explosive power while being able to maintain unfaltering length and clarity with ease through the rise and fall of her voice. Together, DiDonato and Kulchynska acted with complete fluency, sharing a subliminal vocal beauty and creating an exciting vision of wrenching drama in which the focus was on the tension and urgency, not on melodramatic romantic gestures. It came across cleverly, poignantly and with the immediacy of being in the moment, making great sense of the limited close body contact between the pair and focusing on the circumstantial tragedy.

Benjamin Bernheim stood mighty as Tebaldo in action and voice, his large, clear, ringing tenor a force of its own but equally powerful over the chorus and orchestra. As Giulietta's father Capellio, Alexei Botnarciuc brought a distinguished presence and a disquieting pensiveness in a fine solid vocal display of not knowing how he might react. Sympathetic to Romeo and Giulietta's relationship and retainer of the Capuleti, bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi imbued Lorenzo with an ice-cool wariness, his gravel-rich and resonant voice on the mark. Threading his way across the day's horror, Gieorgij Puchalski created intrigue as he seemingly alternated between Romeo and Giulietta as an 'attendant' or as a ghostly shadow.

The Zurich Opera Chorus are to be credited with not only their impressive vocal depth, pinpoint timing and wonderful balance, but the magnitude of the detail in which they act.

And driving the momentum with great feeling, Fabio Luisi led the Philharmonia Zurich to fill the theatre with Bellini's highly charged music with energetic playing. Amongst some stunning frenetic string playing and flowing brass, solo members of the orchestra get to shine with Act II's brooding solo clarinet of Robert Pickup a fine example.

With every ingredient weighed up thoughtfully, this production sucks you in from the beginning and quite remarkably makes you forget this is a story harking back centuries. There is much in it to ponder without losing the story's effect and you'll want to see it again.

Production Photographs by Monika Rittershaus

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