Thursday, 31 March 2016

Vivid and intense: Bellini's Romeo and Juliet in the round

Matthew Palmer, Andrew Tipple, Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Matthew Palmer, Andrew Tipple, Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016
Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi; Flora McIntosh, Alice Privett, Andrew Tipple, Cliff Zammit-Stevens, Matthew Palmer, dir: James Hurley, Berrak Dyer; Pop-Up Opera at Carousel
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A modern gangland setting for Bellini's romantic opera

Since its formation in 2011, Pop-Up Opera has become known for accessible lively performances of comic operas in found spaces, with the aim of encouraging new audiences. For the company's Spring 2016 tour the took a step onto the dark side, and embraced the tragedy of Bellini's re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet story in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. We caught the performance on Wednesday 30 March 2016, at Carousel, 71 Blandford Street, Marylebone, W1U 8QA. Directed by James Hurley with music director Berrak Dyer accompanying on piano, the cast included Flora McIntosh as Romeo, Alice Privett as Giulietta, Andrew Tipple as Capellio, Cliff Zammit-Stevens as Tebaldo and Matthew Palmer as Lorenzo (the whole opera is in fact double cast).

Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchiphoto Richard Lakos
Performed in the round, in modern dress the set simply consisted of a series of found objects, suitcases, chairs, a wine-rack which were re-configured between the acts. As the production tours to found spaces, the lighting rig was simple but effective, the overhead lights being supplemented by portable ones which were operated by the cast creating a strong chiaroscuro effect which suited James Hurley's re-setting the piece in a modern gangland milieu.

There was no hint of attempting to lighten the drama in any way, surprising and admirable in a company known for its comedy, and the performers really threw themselves into Hurley's vision of the intense dramatics and violence which accompany the story. And, even playing in the round, the cast managed to avoid any hint of the risible, the evening was thankfully free of embarrassed titters from the audience. Instead all were gripped.

The violence in the Romeo and Juliet story is rather implicit and when present is often prettified, with much posturing with rapiers. James Hurley's solution was to put the piece very much in the present, with Capellio (Andrew Tipple) in charge of a Mafia-like gang for whom violence was a way of life. All the cast really threw themselves into the violent atmosphere, so much so that I wondered whether the production went too far. Bellini's music does not depict the violence, instead he concentrates on the intense emotions of the characters. The saving grace of the production was that the cast, Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett in particular, were well able to bring out the lyrical beauty of Bellini's music.

Technically Rossini's music in his comic operas is probably no easier than Bellini's music, but in comedy there is a chance to offset things with comic business. But in a serious opera like I Capuleti e i Montecchi there is nowhere to hide.

Flora McIntosh - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Flora McIntosh - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchiphoto Richard Lakos
Flora McIntosh as Romeo displayed a wonderfully rich and even mezzo-soprano voice, with a lovely sense of the flexible line necessary to bring this role off. She has the right depth of tone and sense of intensity, combined with a nice feel for the more ornamental moments. McIntosh cut an admirably androgynous figure, really convincing as the impetuous young hero, equally as violent as Capellio and his gang.

Alice Privett brought out the fragility of Julietta's character, giving a real sense of her being on the edge. This was a performance where a mad scene would have been a highly believable consequence. Singing bel canto this close to the audience and in such a resonant and unyielding space as the basement in Carousel meant that we could hear every detail. Privett's voice lacked an element of bloom which a more suitable acoustic would have provided, so that moments like Julietta's opening solo lost a little of their pellucid magic. Instead, Privett worked with this bringing a vibrant intensity to the role.

Privett and McIntosh combined to create a believable duo who really did seem to create their own little world, no matter what was going on around them. The duet at the end of Act One where the two singing a glorious melody in unison was simply thrilling and the ending profoundly touching.

Cliff Zammit-Stevens, Andrew Tipple, Matthew Palmer - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Cliff Zammit-Stevens, Andrew Tipple, Matthew Palmer
Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Andrew Tipple made a highly believable, violent Capellio, yet his resonant bass voice clearly caressed Bellini's vocal line and he sang with some style. Matthew Palmer's Lorenzo was suitably conflicted, he is the only character who is sympathetic to Romeo and Juliet's plight, and Palmer's baritone too brought a classy sense to Bellini's music. Cliff Zammit-Steven's Tebaldo was by no means the sad sap that the tenor role is sometimes portrayed as. Here Tebaldo was a nasty vicious thug, albeit on in love with Julietta. Zammit-Steven's strong tenor gave the role a robust feel which suited this version of the character.

Inevitably the opera was cut, as there was no chorus and rather daringly Hurley chose to drop the final chorus of the opera so that the work ended with just Romeo and Julietta. A choice which worked well in the context, even if Alice Privett's Julietta did not fall dead at the end.

Berrak Dyer accompanied sympathetically and admirably, but she could not disguise the fact that Bellini's accompanying music shorn of its orchestrations can sometimes verge towards the trite. I particularly felt that some of the interstitial orchestral music could have been trimmed somewhat in a production which eschewed the grand ceremonial of a large scale opera house.

The work was sung in Italian, highly communicatively, and using some clever streaming technology the company had surtitles projected onto the four walls so that everyone could see some. These summarised the dialogue into rather jokey gangster-ese (I could have done with something a bit more neutral, frankly), but for the more poetic arias we were given both the Italian and the English which was a supremely admirable idea.

I have to confess that before the production started I was not really sure what to expect. Bringing off a Bellini opera is a big ask for young singers in a small company, and doing it in the round is even more challenging. James Hurley, Berrak Dyer and their cast rose to the challenge, giving a vividly intense and gripping performance which did more than justice to Bellini's music.

The opera tours until 7 May with performances in Hackney Wick; Court Gardens Farm, East Sussex; Royal Free Hospital; Essex; Asylum Peckham, Brympton House, Somerset, Minack Theatre, Cornwall; Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft; St John's House, Winchester; The Tythe Barn, Bicester; London Museum of Water and Steam; The Spire, Brighton; Tobacco Factory Theatres, Brighton; Brewery Arts Centre, Cumbria; The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester. Full details from the Pop-Up Opera website.

Recommended Recordings;
Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi - Edita Gruberova, Agnes Baltsa, Royal Opera House, Riccardo Muti
Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi - Beverly Sills, Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppe Patane

Elsewhere on this blog:

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