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Vincenzo Bellini
09 Jun 2008

Star Power in Paris “Capuleti”

For Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” Paris Opera peopled its revival with plenty of star power.

Vincenzo Bellini: Les Capulets et les Montaigus

Capellio (Giovanni Battista Parodi), Giulietta (Anna Netrebko), Romeo (Joyce DiDonato), Tebaldo (Matthew Polenzani), Lorenzo (Mikhail Petrenko), Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Direction musicale (Evelino Pidò), Mise en scène (Robert Carsen), Décors et costumes (Michael Levine), Lumières (Davy Cunningham), Chef des Choeurs (Alessandro Di Stefano).


No question that soprano Anna Netrebko is one of opera’s most visible, most glamorous, and most sought-after marquee names. And the French are positively nutty for mezzo Joyce DiDonato (the rest of the world is catching up) who has scored several (deserved) major career successes in the French capital. Small wonder then that there was a profusion of musical thrill seekers brandishing “je cherche billets” placards outside the sold-out Bastille house.

To get it out of the way up front (as it were): in spite of being five months pregnant, Ms. Netrebko was a radiant and wholly successful “Giulietta.” She was beautifully costumed in a flowing white gown to minimize the modest protrusion of a tummy, and she moved with her usual freedom and grace, including carefully assisted kneeling and fainting moments as required by the plot. Only when she was flat on her “dead” back did her condition become more apparent.

Her full-bodied, creamy lyric voice not only rang out thrillingly in the hall, but she commanded several breathtaking high-flying pianissimi as well. In her current “condition” it seemed that she may have divided up a few of the longer phrases to maintain breath control, but nowhere was this disturbing to the overall line. She nailed all of the familiar set pieces, and the audience responded with predictably enthusiastic ovations.

For all her star quality, natural beauty, musical gifts, and attendant adulation, Ms. Netrebko seems to be a sincere and unaffected colleague, deferring the stage to her co-stars as the focus of the drama requires. A wonderful collaborator, a fine voice, alluring presence, Anna is the real deal without seeming to be a real diva.

To say that she was matched in star power by mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s “Romeo” would be an understatement. Ms. DiDonato has a wide-ranging, high-powered, personalized and slightly reedy voice that she deploys fearlessly to communicate every fine point of this complicated love-torn character. There is no nuance of this role that escapes her. The deeply felt cry when “Giulietta’s” corpse was unveiled broke my heart. She is a fine artist, with perfect diction and total understanding of the text and the internalized emotion behind it. For the record, she was given the final bow, after the more famous Anna (perhaps because the soprano has asked that Patrizia Ciofi spell her for three performances of the run?).

As if these two would not be enough cause for celebration, the entire show was cast from strength. Mathew Polenzani (“Tebaldo”) served notice right at the top that we were in for a sensational night, his refined lyric tenor ringing out in the house, and his first aria/cabaletta as fine as we could wish. “Lorenzo” was so well-voiced by Mikhail Petrenko, and “Capulet” by Giovanni Battista Parodi that it was a pity there was not more for them to do.

capulets2.pngJoyce DiDonato and Anna Netrebko (Photo by Christian Leiber courtesy of Opéra national de Paris

Robert Carsen directed the original production and it is hard to know how much he participated in the revival. An assistant, Isabelle Cardin is also credited. Whoever, this was excellent work. Carsen knows how to place singers on the stage so we are hearing them to maximum advantage, and he knows how to move them logically to those positions through motivated blocking and well-considered character interaction. Good God, a director who knows how to tell the story!

He found an excellent partner in Michael Levine, whose handsome red-paneled walls provided a wonderful playing space with the simple addition of set pieces (stairs, bed, banquet table). The chapel was especially effective with a wide band of light emanating from up left and rows of chairs as pews providing all that was required. The tomb was no less effective, with one wall panel tellingly removed to create a tomb that was ready to accept “Giulietta,” who lay in a pool of light surrounded by flower petals, and was backed by back-lit choristers on a slightly akimbo staircase.

The team immediately established the important background of conflict by having swords stuck in the stage apron which were plucked up by the assembling “Capulets” during the overture. This visual theme was returned to at the end of Act One when the clans square off by advancing on each other and locking weapons in a group freeze center stage at curtain fall. And in a brilliant tweak, at work’s end the two forces assemble in the same aggressive tableau around and over the dead bodies, visually stating that no matter how profound the tragedy, we will walk over the corpses to have history repeat itself.

One other brilliant touch: Act Two opened to the same chapel as had closed One, but revealing dead bodies and over-turned chairs, the sad result of war. As “Giulietta” sank down to her “death,” the dead rose again in a chilling effect, as if on Judgment Day, to welcome her to their ranks. The sumptuous red velvet period costumes (black for the “Montagues”) were exactly right, and provided an elegant sense of time and place.

Conductor Evelino Pidò’s reading of this score was a revelation. I cannot ever remember being so persuaded by the music, or so engaged in, and moved by the drama of Bellini’s somewhat flawed version of the famous tale. The solo work from the clarinet, cello, harp, and horn was top drawer, and indeed the entire orchestra performed splendidly.

There are those who may have come to “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” because it was “the event” of the season, but they most certainly stayed to cheer it to the rafters because it was just so damn’ good. Make that “great.”

James Sohre

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