Music: Vincenzo Bellini
Libretto: Felice Romani
Director: Lysanne van Overbeek
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Who knew, really knew, Romeo and Juliet could be so sexy? Shakespeare’s version has romance, sure, but here in Bellini and Romani’s version there’s a palpable lust expressed in the music, the words, the action and events. Carried off with verve here under Lysanne van Overbeeks direction this is a production that demands attention for all the right reasons.
The story of two young(ish) lovers is presented in a much more satisfying, mature style as an anecdote illustrating the long running, pan-national conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Capellio leads the Capuleti, is still the father of Guilietta, and a sworn enemy of the Ghibelline group of Montecchi and their young leader Romeo. The lovers have already met and fallen in love by the time the story opens, and Romeo has slain Guilietta’s brother, a crime that creates an “mortal barrier” between the two sides so when he approaches Capellio in disguise as a messenger seeking peace in return for a marriage to Guilietta he is given short shrift. Turmoil and angst follow, with Romeo’s army attacking Guelphic strongholds in the city of Verona while he follows his heart to capture his girl. We all know the complications that arise in the tomb thereafter.
The context of warring tribes with grand European implications (rather than dignified families), Romeo’s exciting characterisation and Tebaldo’s zeal potential suitor for the lady means there’s an edge and a thrilling jeopardy at play. Romeo’s menacing aspect is particularly fascinating. Fiona McIntosh’s Romeo is much more of a charismatic leader of men, a swaggering, impulsive, cocksure lad who makes the Bard’s version seem quite wet. They are both impulsive and reckless in love, but what a world of difference in how it’s expressed. He’s certainly a little more exaggerated than can be believed, but some smart staging and production solves that.
The production is founded on the conceit of a young girl reading Romeo and Juliet, the play, and getting sucked into the action. Romeo and there others are, therefore, still characters and seen through a young girl’s romantic imaginings. The literary theme runs right through, with pages of music notation and novel passages littered everywhere, wedding bouquets and buttonholes made of book pages, and when not needed on stage the characters retreat to just out of sight among the audience, perhaps just waiting for the pages to be turned so they can get back in focus.
While each singer delivers on Bellini’s gorgeous bel canto style, and the acting is (refreshingly for an opera) engaging across the board, McIntosh, Pauls Putnins as Lorenzo (the doctor and friend of Guilietta) and the New Zealander bass-baritone James Ioelu as Capellio should be particularly endorsed. Ioelu’s deep resonance combined with his vocal dexterity is immensely pleasing to listen to, and Putnins sincerity and ability is impossible to fault.
Within the music itself, spikes of real beauty still come unexpectedly, even with ongoing proof this cast are capable of excellent performance. Romeo’s discovery, where Capellio and Tebaldo realise they have been fooled, leads to the show’s musical highlight – the five singers give us a spellbinding Soccorso, sostegno, accordagli o cielo, as poetically and romantically affecting as it is musically impressive.
With Kelvin Lim at the piano (and as musical director) the team have created a memorable, charismatic and enjoyable opera show. It’s not perfect, but it carries the message and music well, surely the whole point? Unfortunately for the majority, it’s now sold out for this run at Grimeborn – hopefully not the last we see of it.
Reviewed 4 September 2019 | Image: Contributed