Knives out in Verona: a fine I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Buxton Festival
Bachtrack by Dominic Lowe
Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi is one of those operas that constantly threatens to enter the popular repertoire, but never quite manages to establish itself, despite being taken up in recent years by, amongst others, Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča. The composer put it together from the score of his earlier unsuccessful work Zaira in combination with Felice Romani’s own reworking of a libretto he wrote on the same subject for Vaccai several years beforehand. Romani took as his source not Shakespeare’s play, but a story contained in the writings of Matteo Bandello, whose work inspired several other Shakesperean plays.
Harry Fehr’s production for the Buxton Festival brings the action forward to the modern day, with the Capulet army in berets and bearing machine guns and the set design combines the luxury of a palazzo – glossy floors, finely upholstered chairs – with hints of the ongoing conflict, most visible in the huge rings of barbed wire at the top of the walls. The opera opens with a coffin at the centre, containing the son of Capellio, the Capulet leader, and ends similarly with Giulietta’s coffin centre-stage. In the middle two acts, the furniture is moved around a little to give us a hall for Giulietta’s wedding to Tebaldo. It’s an effective updating that makes one reflect on more recent unnecessary conflicts – a timely production. The direction was fluid and managed to make one of the most well-known plots in artistic history genuinely gripping.
The Buxton audience was given luxury casting in Stephanie Marshall’s Romeo and Sarah-Jane Brandon’s Giulietta, both of whose commitment to the roles was unquestionably total. Brandon’s soprano has developed into a very well rounded instrument; confident in all parts of the voice with impressive ease at the top. There was no constriction to her high notes, which poured out in perfectly judged coloratura. It’s a generously sized voice and so creamy that many of us will be blaming our expanding waistlines on her rather than excessive puddings. Precise and careful phrasing, smooth legato, a colourful expressive tone – there’s a lot to praise here. Marshall’s Romeo was slightly terrifying – a constant manic glint in the eye as she brandished her gun and encouraged bloodshed. Marshall’s steely mezzo coped well with the florid demands of Bellini’s writing, and she was also able to dispatch the top notes without difficulty. I’m not convinced about the bottom of her voice, which seemed rather harsh and could do with a little rounding, but there was fine projection and careful diction. It must be said that the chemistry Marshall and Brandon created was convincing and compelling, both totally inhabited the roles and their acting benefited from it. Their duets, a wonderful melding of two excellent voices, were quite lovely.
Tebaldo, the third wheel, was sung by tenor Luis Gomes, whose style seems to be simple, but sweet. His opening aria “È serbata a questo acciaro” showed a lovely sense of line and an appreciation for the libretto; he showed he could reach and hold high notes, but he could have been a little more generous with them. His stage manner in the first half was lacking in dynamism, but he worked himself up well for a knife fight and his acting improved steadily from there. Jonathan Best’s Capellio was an uncompromising military leader whose ‘principles’ led to him gutting his own daughter at the end, a neat way of reacting to the cry of “Da te, spietato!” in response to his “Uccisi! da chi?”. His bass rolled cleanly over the orchestra, showing plenty of colour and a fine gravelly tone. Attention to phrasing was slightly lacking towards the beginning, but this was rectified fairly promptly. Julian Tovey sang Lorenzo, here an army chaplain, in woody tones that while earnest and steady, occasionally lacked force, though the voice managed to capture various shades of warmth and concern well.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra under Justin Doyle gave the best performance I’ve heard from them at Buxton; scarcely a single slip, entirely comfortable with Bellini’s long, beautiful lines and surprisingly loud when needed to be. Doyle brought out the best in them; tempi were exciting, but did not push the singers uncomfortably. The woodwind, which is particularly spotlit in this opera, was on beautiful, mournful form and Bellini’s writing for the harp was well served by Lauren Scott. I want to see more bel canto from Doyle as soon as possible. The Buxton Festival Chorus too gave a splendid performance; bags of tune and great acting.
The overall impression from this performance was that it is a well-cast, well-rehearsed and well-played production. Worth catching if at all possible.