It was a staggering evening with two of the most gifted women singing at the top of their game. The rest was pure backdrop. Frankly, if mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato as Romeo, and soprano Patrizia Ciofi as Giulietta had performed alone in concert version, supported as they were by a beautifully shaded orchestral performance, led by Riccardo Frizza, it would have made me equally happy.
The staging, while not disturbing (except for the absurd wedding scene with overdressed women scrambling up and down what resembled sports ground bleachers) did little to enhance the production value. And the stage direction was either uninspired or absurd, particularly when it came to poor Giulietta, who looked as if she was auditioning for some kind of cat burglar career as she clambered up walls and into a large bathroom sink, presumably to convey fear, hope and desperation.
Bellini is generally not a very inspired creator of outstanding operatic personalities (the complex pair in La Sonnambula being something of an exception), but his music is so enchanting that it more than makes up for that. From the first notes of the surprisingly jolly overture (this is, after all, a tragedy), to the end three hours later, it was pure enjoyment. And this is somewhat surprising because the opera was commissioned in a hurry by the Venetian opera house, La Fenice, and, to finish on time, Bellini borrowed heavily from Zaira, a recent work of his that had been a dismal failure. Listening to this non-stop flow of gorgeous arias, it was hard to understand how any of it could have failed to please the earlier audiences.
Joyce DiDonato was a replacement as Romeo for the Estonian Elina Garança. I certainly would not have objected to Garança, but for me, DiDonato, who has been described by The Times as a 24-carat talent, was a gift. As far as I am concerned, she has never put a foot wrong, and anyone who failed to be impressed by her performance as the doomed Scottish queen in the Metropolitan's 2013 production of Maria Stuarda defies understanding. She is also one of few opera stars who recognises the need to tailor her repertoire as she ages. Her Cenerentola will be missed, but she knew it was time to move on. Brava!
Ciofi is almost her equal and gave a great vocal performance. It was certainly not her fault that she had to scramble around like a monkey in a cage, for the most part, clutching rather than wearing her dress. Odd staging indeed.
The other performances were adequate but, partly because the roles are intrinsically so subordinate, much less noticeable. Tenor Antonino Siragusa was fair but unexciting as Tebaldo, the man to whom Giulietta was betrothed. Lorenzo, the Italian substitute for Shakespeare's Nurse and sung by Simon Orfila, was a dignified presence. The rest of the cast were essentially the well-trained chorus, and they cannot be blamed for the inappropriate costumes and movements.
Much has been made of the fact that the costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix and Robert Schwaighofer. At his best, Lacroix is generally over-the-top, and this was very much the case in the costumes of the poor female wedding guests, peacocking up and down the bleachers for no discernible reason in embarrassingly overwrought gowns. The 19th-century stove-pipe hats and frock coats for the male characters were boring and era-inappropriate. Which of the two designers was responsible for what, I do not know, but as a whole, it did not work. Despite this, something that did work well were the era-appropriate wall tapestries, which served as the backdrop for most of the scenes.
The production was a joint effort of the Liceu, the San Francisco Opera and The Bayerische Staatsoper of Munich, so it is hard to know who to blame for the less successful production choices. And a significant portion of the audience, the high-tier cognoscenti as per usual, made their disapproval known during the final curtain calls.
The production runs until June 1st. DiDonato sings on May 23rd, 25th, 28th and June 1st. Ciofi sings on May 23rd, 26th, 29th and June 1st.
The next opera of the season, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, opens on June 18th and runs until July 8th.