Ever since seeing Donizetti’s 1833 Lucrezia Borgia, in the San Francisco Opera production starring Renée Fleming, and later Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I’ve been a big fan of bel canto, an older, less often performed form of opera. I was particularly taken with the Bellini, which was first staged in 1830. I don’t know if these gorgeous arias and duets could be performed much better than they were by soprano Nicole Cabell as Juliet and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as her Romeo.
Now, concurrent with DiDonato’s singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Game 7 of the World Series (though I don’t think that was the plan), San Francisco Opera has released its 2012 production of Bellini’s beautiful opera on DVD and Blu-ray—so now you can see it in your home, stretched out on the couch in your slippers.
The bel canto operas—which predate the more well-known Romantic-era operas, such as Verdi’s Tosca and Aida, Puccini’s La Bohème, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, to name a very few—place tremendous demands on the vocalists, who must demonstrate their virtuosity in hitting high and low notes and adding impressive embellishments. Fleming has said she slowed her career by years because she was “determined to try and master our most virtuosic arias!”
Interestingly, Bellini’s approach to perhaps the most famous love story of all time features two women in the leads. Not for any same-sex undercurrents (although I can’t help thinking this opera could well have helped the same-sex-marriage cause), but because of the already fading convention of scoring some male roles for women. Romeo was actually the last major “trouser role” in Italian opera.
It probably started when women began singing roles once performed by castrati, young male singers castrated to preserve their boyishly beautiful voices. Even when the preference for high-voiced male heroes subsided, no one could deny the unearthly beauty that can result when the voices of a soprano and a mezzo-soprano entwine.
Created with the Bavarian State Opera, in Munich, and conducted by Riccardo Frizza, this production offers even more to think about regarding men and women. The last scene in Act I takes place on a steel structure reminiscent of stadium seating. Slowly, the stairs fill with sumptuously dressed women and men in top hats and tails, arriving for the wedding of Juliet and (in this opera) Tybalt. But only the men are singing; the women have roses clamped in their mouths. As the guests slowly walk up the stairs and out, one woman remains. She casts aside the dress she holds in front of her, and we see it’s a man—that is, diDonato, the woman singing Romeo. Then she spits the rose halfway across the stage.
If the roses symbolize the muting of the women, unable to control even their own lives, the top hats reflect the conformity of the men. They, too, hold little power, mindlessly following their leaders into constant battle. When we first see Romeo, he comes unrecognized from the Montagues, offering peace. Capellio, lord of the Capulets, will have none of it, just as he rejects a plea not to force Juliet into marriage.
Although this version of the tragedy has no masked ball, sword fights, or balcony scene, it does end in the Capulets’ tomb, with the lifeless bodies of Romeo and Juliet. The Capulet men enter with Capellio, who cries out, “Killed! By whom?”
“By you, ruthless man,” sing the men, and they fling their top hats to the ground. Love it!
I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and other San Francisco Opera productions in DVD/Blu-ray, are available from the San Francisco Opera online store, shop.sfopera.com.