This production was set in the time of the Guelph/Ghibelline conflict, and, as the opera opens, there is open warfare in progress. The Capulet home is a grim fortress, not the elegant palazzo we usually see, and Romeo is leader of the opposing army laying seige to the town. Romeo (Marianna Kulikova) arrives in mufti as an ambassador offering to make peace between the families by an interdynastic marriage with Giulietta (Georgia Jarman). Despite the positive advice of Lorenzo (Kurt Link), the family physician and counsellor, the Capulet patriarch, Capellio (Jamie Offenbach), refuses, determined instead to marry his daughter to his loyal captain, Tebaldo (Scott Piper). Capello's son was killed in combat with Montague troops, and Capellio hates Romeo for his son's sake.
In the second scene, Lorenzo arranges a secret meeting between Romeo and Giulietta. Although Giulietta loves Romeo in return, she refuses to elope with him, as it would be dishonorable. In the third scene of the first act, Romeo infiltrates troops into town and disrupts the planned wedding of Tebaldo and Giulietta, but himself barely escapes.
Faced with the potential death of everyone she cares for, Giulietta agrees to take the sleeping potion to feign death and elope with Romeo. However, word of the plan does not get to Romeo because Capellio becomes suspcious of Lorenzo and has him imprisoned.
Romeo and Tebaldo are about to fight to the death when news of Giulietta's supposed end reaches them. In a nice ironic scene, the would-be combatants each beg for death, each blaming himself for Giulietta's loss and claiming to be made the more miserable thereby.
The opera ends in Juliet's tomb. Adding a bit of Gothic horror, Juliet awakes just after Romeo has taken the poison, such that he dies in her arms. In some productions, Juliet then dies "of grief", although here she took the more Shakespearean route of stabbing herself with Romeo's dagger, whereupon the curtain fell.
The opera is "small" by some standards, with only the five principals, and the sixth character being the Florentine men's chorus representing Capulet and Montague retainers. "Bel Canto" however, calls for fine voices, and we were not disappointed. Soprano Georgia Jarman was outstanding as Giulietta, with a beautiful, strong, and expressive voice. Marianna Kulikova (mezzo) as Romeo, was not well reviewed by our local paper, which claimed she was frequently overwhelmed by the chorus and orchestra. I don't know if she "let it out" a bit more in the final performance or what, but we had no trouble hearing and enjoying her performance from our seats in the center loge. it must be noted that the "Romeo" role is a demanding one, since she was on and singing in all six scenes, with substantial running and fighting in scenes three and five. We thought she handled it all very, very well. Scott Piper (Tebaldo) has an excellent tenor voice and performed without flaw or seeming effort. Bass Jamie Offenbach, as the family tyrant was a dominating presence, and Kurt Link (bass) ably moved the plot along as Lorenzo. We detected no fault in any of the singing.
In our opinion, Bellini deserved his reputation as a musical genius of his day. With the support of the well-drilled chorus, and the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Joseph Resigno, the opera gave us gorgeous melodies, harmonies, and sonorities.
As well as being lovely to listen to, the production was good to look at as well. The sparse sets, hired from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, were brought to life by an expressive light plot, designed by Peter Dean Beck, and costumes were handsome and generally period-appropriate. Between stage director Bernard Uzan and fight choreographer Todd Denning, the company handily avoided the "typical" bel canto opera staging. ("Come down center, stand, and sing--.")
All in all, both Georgie and I agreed it was a wonderful treat to find an opera that was both new to us and so thouroughly enjoyable.