The Capulets and the Montagues – SF Opera’s New Production – I like it. Do you?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slideshow of Photos from the San Francisco Opera website by Cory Weaver.

Romeo and Juliet – It is a story that everybody knows, loves and feels sad about it. I had seen the movie a few times ( of course), and the ballet ( twice in SF and once in Vienna). What about the opera? San Francisco Opera has its new production this season, and I love it!

However not everyone agrees with me. Of those that I polled( family, friends, co-workers), one said it was too slow ( he has been a S F Opera subscriber for 20 years). Another friend who went to see almost all operas everywhere in the world said that it was too modern for him!  Another said that it was good but she did not like the set which was too modern. My co-worker said that it was weird.  My neighbor said she liked it but she wanted to see more dynamics in the opera.  Very interesting…I completely disagreed with them. I think it was one of the most enjoyable operas that I had ever seen. I like the singing ( there was no argument about this as all of them agreed) particularly the two singers that played Romeo and Juliet.  I like Bellini’s music (who wouldn’t) which is beautiful.   Most of all, I like the modern art approach….the set, the costumes, the whole production, are like a piece of modern art!  As I am not a critic, and cannot write like a critic, I would like to refer to two reviews apart from the SF Opera website.  You will tell me what you think after reading these reviews.

Here are the excerpt and photos by Cory Weaver from the San Francisco Opera website:


The Capulets and the Montagues
Libretto by Felice Romanio

“The tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet inspired some of Shakespeare’s finest verse—and some of Bellini’s most beautiful melodies. “An opera of definite dramatic appeal” (The New York Times) awash in “music of extraordinary grace” (All Music Guide), this bel canto masterpiece features international stars Joyce DiDonato, a singer of “glamour, charisma, intelligence, grace and remarkable talent,” and Nicole Cabell, who “wields her radiant lyric soprano like a silken lasso” (The New York Times). Saimir Pirgu, praised by Opera News as “a tenor to watch,” brings his “honeyed tenor” (The New York Times) to his debut role as Tebaldo. Costumes are by world-renowned fashion designer Christian Lacroix; set designer Vincent Lemaire has created “dramatically powerful visual statements” (Opera Today) for the production; director Vincent Boussard “effectively underscores the claustrophobic, helpless situation of both lovers” (Opera News). Riccardo Frizza, praised by The New Yorker for his “crisp and idiomatic conducting,” leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.”

The following is the review of this opera posted at the San Francisco Classical Voice:

In Quest for Perfection: Bellini at S.F. Opera

” From its opening aria, Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto gem, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, declares that it is a singer’s opera. You can try to popularize it, as San Francisco Opera has done, by calling this story of Romeo et Giulietta The Capulets and the Montagues, and, while retaining Felice Romani’s Italian libretto, anglicizing the characters’ names in the supertitles, but it’s the singing that makes or breaks the performance.

In an opera with five principals, all of whom spend a good deal time performing an astounding succession of supremely beguiling melodies that are, at the least, as exposed as anything Mozart ever wrote, you need voices that seize attention. In the case of the two female leads, who carry the bulk of the evening and upon whom Bellini lavishes his most magnificent writing, you need voices that seize the heart, stun the senses, and ultimately take your breath away. Anything short of that, and anyone with a sense of what the music demands feels a sense of disappointment.

In mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) and soprano Nicole Cabell (Juliet), we had, on paper, two extremely gifted artists whose solos and duets promised to be a highlight of the opera season worldwide. DiDonato, a Merola Opera program alum, is a true Golden Age singer with a sizable voice whose wide range extends from grave lows to thrilling highs. She also has an oft-astounding gift for coloratura ornamentation, fierce intelligence, and deep emotional commitment to her music.

Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) with Supernumeraries.

Save for a few high notes whose color wasn’t exactly right, and one awkward run in her first aria, DiDonato was magnificent. Her final death scene was so riveting that it even silenced the coughs of virtually all of the persistent, fall cold-plagued audience members.

Cabell, too, sang beautifully. Her duets with DiDonato were a special high point, their voices blending almost as magically as the fabled duo of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne (or, later in their careers, Montserrat Caballé, and Horne). She also joined DiDonato in showing a fine understanding of bel canto nuance and shading, and sang with increasing elasticity as the night progressed.

Eric Owens (Capellio) and Saimir Pirgu (Tebaldo)

Ultimately, however, Cabell is not a coloratura. As much as she worked to soften and lighten her high range, and as astounding as her physical balance and control were in scenes literally sung on the edge, she lacked the soaring, ideally silvery sweet top that Bellini’s music demands. Singing that should have been ravishing was instead quite beautiful.

And there was the problem. In I Capuleti e I Montecchi, beauty in and of itself is not enough. Time and again, in scene after rousing scene, Bellini demands — virtually screams — go up! This aria, this duet, this ensemble needs the punch of a high ending. But whether in Juliet’s breathtaking opening recitative and aria, “Eccomi in lieta vesta … Oh! quante volte,” at the end of Romeo’s big scene with his rival, Tebaldo (tenor Saimir Pirgu), or in the finale in which all five principals join the chorus in singing full out, the singing did not deliver the thrilling high punch that the music demands.

Pirgu was a bit of a disappointment. He doesn’t have that much to sing — Bellini had to rely on a second-rate tenor in the opera’s premiere, and thus minimized Tebaldo’s role — but he does have two wonderful arias that demand a free, shining, soaring tone. Pirgu’s high notes were quite strong and 95 percent solid, but they felt punched out, added atop a voice whose basic timbre lacks the heart-seizing warmth and brilliance of a Vargas, Calleja, younger Carreras, or Pavarotti. He was quite good in an opera in which quite good isn’t good enough.

And the chorus …

In the smaller role of Giulietta’s father, Capellio, the wonderful bass-baritone Eric Owens sang with majesty and authority. His voice surprisingly lacked the volume expected from someone who has distinguished himself in Wagner, Adams, and Gershwin, but he was quite fine. Even more impressive was baritone Ao Li, an Adler Fellow whose vocal strength and beauty, allied with an increasingly convincing stage presence, were a joy to hear. This man could go very far.

As for the male chorus — women choristers are so minimized that director Vincent Broussard had costume designer Christian Lacroix stick big bright flowers in their silent mouths in Act 1 Scene 3 — chorus director Ian Robertson once again honed them to near perfection.

Ao Li with DiDonatao
Many conductors try their hand at bel canto, but few deliver the extremely pliable tempos, understanding of nuance, and way with light and shade that Riccardo Frizza brought to the score. Showing supreme respect for his artists, Frizza molded Bellini’s vocal line to the extent his singers allowed, lingering over notes and phrases without once becoming mannered. The man clearly loves bel canto writing, and understands its ultimate potential. Bravo!

Giulietta delivers her opening aria climbing into and standing on a sink, often with her face against the wall and her back to the audience. A sink, as in this relationship is going down the drain? Principals spent much of their time in dim light or shadows, which obscured facial expressions. Lighting designer Guido Levi’s choice to put the spotlight on a suspended sculpture while letting DiDonato and Cabell languish was ridiculous.

Finally, the several scenes staged on bleachers made an already static concept even more so. Bellini may not have written an ideal ending for the opera — the fabled Maria Malibran was so disappointed with its lack of prima donna fireworks that she substituted a scene from Vaccai’s opera on the same subject — but, with everyone but Romeo and Giulietta frozen on the bleachers, San Francisco’s finale fizzled.”

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings who writes about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, Gramophone, Carnegie Hall Playbill, East Bay Express, Stanford Lively Arts, San Francisco Examiner, Bay Area Reporter,, and other publications.


Another review which I agree with, is from the BWW Reviews written by Harmony Wheeler:

” Vincenzo Bellini’s opera based on “Romeo and Juliet” does not follow the traditional Shakespeare plot, so it seems appropriate that the San Francisco Opera production, too, should veer away from traditional sets and costumes and create a world of its own.

As the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, the current bay area production of “The Capulets and the Montagues” takes place within a time of its own. While Vincent Lemaire’s minimal sets don’t always make sense, they never fail to draw audiences in with their overwhelming artistic look highlighted by Guido Levi’s gorgeous lighting. Horse bridles hang from the ceiling. A giant framework creates the illusion of the many steps of a castle. Angular pieces create the perfect evening sunset. And a constant backdrop creates the tense, war-like atmosphere as the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, fight with the stubborn pride. That pride, of course, leads to the tragic deaths of the ill-fated lovers, Romeo and Giulietta, each from opposite sides of the feud.

The story stays mostly true to the Shakespeare classic, but shows audiences scenes, characters and plot elements not found in the original. Bellini’s lush score stirs hearts as an amazing cast of singers tightens the opera’s grip on all who watch. Audiences may easily expect amazing vocals from an opera company as well known as San Francisco’s, but the five principles of “The Capulets and the Montagues” exude passion and triumph with beautiful, moving acting along with every fantastic note sung.

Nicole Cabell plays a Giulietta torn between love and loyalty to her family. With incredible physical stamina, Cabell changes with her character, from innocence driven mad to love in its maturity. As Romeo, Joyce DiDonato pleads with Giulietta to run away and elope, stating he will die if he cannot marry his true love. Ao Li makes a relatable physician and friend of both lovers. Saimir Pirgu makes a wonderful “love-to-hate” villain as the sensitive Tebaldo, caught up in his family’s war, but also madly in love with and loyal to Giulietta. And Eric Owens stays penetratingly immovable as Giulietta’s father, Capellio.

San Francisco Opera’s fairly new production, a partnership with Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, engages audiences on every level. Every artistic choice made for this production enhances an experience already made perfect by Bellini’s music and San Francisco Opera’s breathtaking cast. ”

Other reviews of the opera are also good for reading: Opera WarhorsesMercury NewsSan Francisco Examiner.

Apart from appreciating the opera, I had a bonus that night! We met our dear famous author of  The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan, in a cafe before the opera.  I went forward and said, ” I am your fan.  I like your novels and your opera  The Bonesetter’s Daughter.  She smiled and shook hands with me.  Then the owner of the cafe ( the Sage Cafe) told me that the “doctor” was there at another table.  He is Ao Li, the singer praised by Classical Voice.  The owner of the Sage Cafe is also a musician himself.  He is a conductor of a community symphony.  He invited me and my family to attend his next concert too!

What an interesting and enjoyable evening: beautiful people, beautiful music and beautiful performance.  Also good coffee and snack at the Sage as well!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting post, I find it a very subjective matter whether one likes a particular opera performance or not. Modern setting, it quite depends on the context of the opera I suppose. Lovely to know that you have a bonus afterwards, Joy Luck Club, it rings a bell and it is a beautiful film (a bit sad though). Thanks for the insights.

  2. friendlytm says:

    Thanks so much for reading my post. It is indeed subjective. My co-worker has exactly the opposite taste in appreciating operas.

    I think the trend nowadays is moving towards a modern way of producing many popular operas.

    I just saw a few more reviews which are also interesting. I added the links in the post. Please check them out if you are interested.

    Amy Tan is great! The opera Bonesetter’s Daughter was based on her best selling novel. In my opinion, that opera is also very modern in its production. I provided a link to the NY Times review in the blog.

    1. I rethink about modern setting of today’s operas, in fact I would prefer not to see modern setting if possible (technically could be difficult nowadays), since I just feel like attending a musical instead of opera, perhaps that’s the reason why some people comment against the modern setting.

      1. friendlytm says:

        “To paraphrase the artist Marcel Duchamp: the work of art is not performed by the artist alone. The viewer completes the art”. I think if the viewer does not like it, it means the art is not complete. I felt the same way with the opera Moby Dick, which has raving reviews from the professional critics. But it did not resonate with me. I don’t think it is the modern production that some viewers don’t like. It is more like individual feelings, emotions and resonance with the artwork, whether it is a painting, a photo, or a musical performance.
        Thank you for engaging in this conversation. I really appreciate your comments. I welcome continuous dialogue. This is a subject matter that I find very interesting.

I appreciate your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s