Thursday, November 22, 2007

Grand Old Opry

San Francisco Opera's new production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi presents 20th century operagoers with a curious enigma. For audiences familiar with Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, and Prokofiev's ballet, the fact that Felice Romani's libretto differs so widely from the Shakespearean version of Romeo and Juliet can be distinctly unnerving.

Gone is the poignancy of Mercutio's death.

Gone is the lyricism of the famous balcony scene.

Gone are the somber moments of the lovers' secret wedding in Friar Laurence's chapel.

Gone are the rage of Tybalt's curse and the wide-eyed purity of Paris's betrothal.

Instead of the star-crossed lovers everyone has read about in high school, audiences are confronted with a melodious (and often far from tragic-sounding) songfest in which the dramatic ramifications of years of bad blood spilled between the warring Capulets and Montagues is supplanted by an artistic stress on the vocal line. The abruptness with which the plot's exposition is handled may astound those seeking a more intensified style of theatrical passion.

Borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Guilio Chazalettes' production (with scenery and costumes designed by Ulisse Santicchi) features a stark black unit set whose bowl-like forestage is quickly transformed into an arena for showcasing vocal talent. Once conductor Antonio Pappano guided the orchestra through some of Bellini's cheaper moments of "carousel-music" type filler, the way was made clear for an evening of glorious singing.

In an era when so many artists seem to be performing by rote, I Capuleti e i Montecchi offers a surprising opportunity to sit back and enjoy a style of opera that remains narrowly focused on the glory of the human voice. Although decidedly lacking in dramatic suspense, Bellini's opera delivers a rare thrill: the chance to wallow in glorious singing.

This is not an evening which can be easily sabotaged by expensive stage machinery or a director's oddball fantasy. Either you have the voices to sing this music or you don't.

Most of this production's attention is focused on the arias and duets written for the two romantic leads -- passionately sung here by mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler (in her long-overdue San Francisco Opera debut) and Italian soprano Cecilia Gasdia.

Ziegler proved herself to be an intense Romeo: committed to the forcefulness of her music while cutting a reasonable figure in yet another mezzo pants role. Gasdia's performance, however, struck a particularly strange and wonderful cord with this reviewer. Has it been so long since San Francisco audiences have been treated to the kind of full-throated bel canto singing that can easily fill the vast reaches of the War Memorial Opera House? Or is it so wonderfully odd these days to encounter a voice filled with huge emotions that is encased in a beautiful and dramatically viable package?

The effect is quite intoxicating.

With Bellini's opera aimed at showcasing two stunning soprano talents, it's not surprising that the men in the cast made smaller contributions to the evening. In his American debut, Vincenzo La Scola often sounded coarse; a tenor with strong lung power but little refinement in his singing. And a noticeably slimmed-down Paul Plishka seemed rather restrained as Capellio, the head of the Capulet tribe and father of Giulietta.

A most pleasant surprise, however, came from Philip Skinner as Lorenzo, the physician serving the Capulet family who, in this version, replaces Shakespeare's Friar Laurence. Skinner's artistry has been maturing quite nicely ever since he graduated from the Merola Program in the class of 1985. A strong bass-baritone with an easy masculinity to his stage presence, he continues to impress audiences with his growth and dramatic honesty.

The strength of his performance provided a handsome foil to the intensity of the two romantic leads. And if this production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi struck some in the audience as being dramatically anemic, it was not for lack of exceptionally strong singing thanks to Ziegler, Gasdia and Skinner.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 3, 1991.

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