Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Color of Love

September 30, 2012

Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell Photo by Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
If Vivienne Westwood and Gerhard Richter had a love child and that particular offspring were an opera production, it might look like Vincent Boussard’s new staging of I Capuleti e I Montecchi which arrived in San Francisco this weekend after its premiere run in Munich. Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story, which is not influenced by Shakespeare’s famous play but the source material the bard himself used, has elements most in the audience will find familiar if only slightly rearranged. Here we have Romeo who has just killed Juliet's brother, competing for her hand in marriage against Tybalt in this version of the story that focuses more on the warring families. Boussard’s production though runs from any of the typical trappings associated with this tale of doomed lovers with one of the most obtuse and abstract stagings to grace the San Francisco stage in some time. Vincent Lemaire’s large grey abstract backdrop which evokes a battle on horses towers over the empty stage at sharp uncomfortable angles which is made even more obtuse with the addition of garish neon colored rag collections that the cast wear as costumes designed by none other than Christian Lacroix. And while all the characters in the show are male with the exception of Juliet, the women who do appear onstage evoke the oblivious world of Edina Monsoon with their giant frizzy wigs and Technicolor wardrobe.

And yet, there is something to this, and I’ll admit that by intermission, this barren off-kilter world communicated something to me about the isolation the two young lovers felt as if totally removed from a reality that keeps intruding on the only thing they can see – each other. Guido Levi’s lighting is a masterpiece of rich shifting color that communicates as much emotional subtext to the evening as the musical and theatrical components. It brings to mind the best of the work of Robert Wilson with its painterly approach to a set that can otherwise be static and dull to look at. This production will not make everyone happy and the opening night audience did toss out its share of boos. But there is something to this and some startling images including when Juliet climbs atop a sink in her room, in fact the only feature of any kind in her room, in an attempt to reach out for a statue of two lovers suspended high above the stage and her floor. In essence it is a production that mirrors the very spirit of bel canto opera itself – one that achieves its ends by dealing within a strictly controlled and outwardly pleasing aesthetic milieu despite the shifting dramatic or emotional content of the libretto at any particular moment.

Of course the show also benefits from three of the most important American vocal artists working today. Joyce DiDonato’s international reputation continues to grow and is well deserved. Her Romeo is known around the world and San Francisco is lucky to have such a gripping, colorful, and inviting performance to behold. She floats pianissimos with ease and never gives a hint of unsteadiness or strain flying through the ornamentation of her part. Her Romeo is often heartbreaking and boiling over with emotion. Eric Owens plays Juliet’s father anchoring the few moments on stage that don’t involve either of the lovers. But perhaps the biggest surprise for me on this evening was Nicole Cabell. Her career has grown surely and steadily over the last seven years or so with appearances in a number of major French roles as well as Mozart. But none of this would have prepared one for the riveting, ornamented, and detailed vocal performance she turned in on opening night. Cabell delivered on all the promises of her big competition wins of recent years as a Juliet who was alternately loving, sad, and increasingly emotionally unstable. Her duets with DiDonato were some of the best operatic singing I’ve heard all year. This Juliet is a major leap forward for Cabell and suggests that it wont be long before she is at the top of the operatic game on a much bigger scale. And with the supportive but never indulgent ear of conductor Riccardo Frizza both she and DiDonato shone even in moments where the orchestra sounded a bit rough around the edges. Saimir Pirgu had several good moments as Tybalt as well, although the tenor did exhibit some unsteadiness at the very top of his range on this evening.

Sure there are oddities that chafe in this evening like the giant staircase that dominates the stage in the closing scene of the Act I and the opening of Act II. But in the end, the aesthetic holds and there is a consistency of approach and care that takes this opera about warring families and manages to put Bellini’s version of the lovers right at the center of the action. The show comes highly recommended on many levels and can be seen at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct 19th.


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