Described as being “committed to presenting creative and accessible opera for everyone, and evolving the art form in adventurous ways”, Victorian Opera certainly showed why they are attracting almost capacity audiences with their fourth Bellini opera, in concert in Hamer Hall, in a one-night-only brilliant performance of The Capulets and The Montagues”. Having an established partnership with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Victorian Opera, under the artistic direction of conductor Richard Mills, continues to rise in stature and national recognition. The selection of soloists was also outstanding, with International experience balanced with Australian debutantes. The chorus members also comprised highly experienced opera soloists in their own right, enhancing the dramatic perspective of the concert.
This two-act opera is a re-worked story of Romeo and Juliet, based on a play written in 1818 by Luigi Scevola, which had links to Renaissance Italian sources, rather than directly following Shakespeare’s play. The theme of warring families has always been popular in Italian theatre, and this work was Bellini’s first major success, even though it was written in just six weeks. Unlike his contemporaries such as Wagner and Verdi who developed Grand Romantic Opera, Bellini preserved the lyrical intimacy of the bel canto style, as it had been developed by Gluck and Mozart, and probably influenced by his friend Chopin. The phrases have continuity and flow, soaring melodies, and are lyrical and poetic, expressing a wide range of feeling.
Bellini re-worked eight or nine melodies from his previously unsuccessful opera Zaire,and created a First Act which I found quite lively, colourful and energetic, with many stirring accelerandos in the style of Italian folk dance performance. Dramatic opening chords and a spirited, lively overture prefaced the 20-voice male chorus, and we immediately felt the energy of the rival family clans, with fine French horn playing enhancing the feeling of battle, sword and vengeance. There was an excellent balance between the TSO and Chorus, and a forward-moving sense of masculinity, as pieces increased tempo towards their codas, as the rivalries of the clans heated up.
In this story, Romeo and Giulietta are already lovers before the opera begins. Their future is doomed, as Giulietta’s hand has been promised to Tebaldo, and no attempts from Romeo to convince her not to marry him, will make her betray her honour and duty to her father.
Carlos E. Barcenas as Tebaldo, David Parkin as Capellio and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Lorenzo were so perfectly tuned for their roles – all having strong lyrical expressive voices, passionate delivery, wide vocal ranges with feeling, and being proud and handsome as well. In the first production in 1830, Romeo was actually sung by a mezzo-soprano, and today Caitlin Hulcup interrupted her international schedule to don a red jacket and black trousers to be a true exponent of passion and red-blooded youth. Her role was admirable: romantic, strong, lyrical, youthful, well-acted and sung with conviction and personality.
Scene 2 was Adagio – with feeling. A gorgeous, golden, gentle French horn solo prepared us for the arrival of Giulietta (Jessica Pratt), who stepped slowly in sorrow from the wings to the stage, elegantly dressed in a white bridal gown and soft golden shawl. This was the hush moment – the whole audience went very still as we felt both the unspoken despair and resignation of our heroine stepping towards her fate, and the anticipation with delight to hear one of Australia’s finest lyrical sopranos. Solo harp (Melina van Leeuwen) accompanied the poetry of her singing – “I search for a breeze”, and “I wait with love, but my hope is in vain”, with feminine and exquisite pianissimo high notes or flowing arpeggios.
I found Bellini’s music for Act 2 to be on a different level of breadth, depth and drama, with solo instruments having important roles and expression. The orchestration and texture of the score, for me there had a greater maturity and strength. A gorgeous cello solo accompanied Giulietta’s stage entrance as she portrayed helplessness and aloneness (“Who should I mourn”), a clarinet solo echoed Romeo’s sadness and abandonment, and trombones coloured the accompaniment with the presence of the rival enemy Tibaldi. As Romeo came to believe that Giulietta was dead, twelve female voices joined the male chorus for the first time, and with the harp given prominence again, we truly felt the presence of the feminine spirit. Simply having the bright lights from Act 1 turn to blue, with Giulietta now in a black dress, and Romeo having changed his red jacket for black, the direction effectively took us into the coldness of the tomb. The intimacy and grief of the text – “Romeo is calling to you, rise my beloved” – was enhanced by the male chorus with strengthened lower strings, trombones and timpani. This was a very moving portrayal of the scene, as both leads freely acted their roles with honest expression of emotion. Pizzicato strings added teardrops as the musical drama built towards a dramatic fortissimo finale – “Death is all I have left.”
Richard Mills maintained his impeccable professional stance as a conductor, economical and precise, a joy to watch and aware of the challenges that can come with having five soloists standing behind him. While facing the audience, soloists can see the conductor in camera monitors in the body of Hamer Hall, but when soloists have final unaccompanied cadenzas and free tempos and pauses, without a direct sight from conductor’s eye to singer’s breathing, there can be a risk of slightly out-of-sync orchestral re-entries. A small number of these risky moments occurred in Act 1, and so for Act 2, Richard Mills was truly authoritative in shifting his stance momentarily, to establish a more successful sight-line to the soloists and achieve more precise ensemble unity. With choir and orchestra in front of the conductor, and soloists behind, this adds to the suspense factor of unique concert performances.
There was genuine Italian applause and calls of “Bravo!!” and “Bravissimo!” for these exceptionally fine soloists and glorious artistic ensembles in a grand production.
Several days later, my companions and I were still discussing this wonderful event with joy.
Reviewer Julie McErlain attended Victorian Opera’s performance of BELLINI’s THE CAPULETS AND THE MONTAGUES at the ARTS CENTRE on September 14, 2018