Unlike the more popular Charles Gounod version, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, recounting the woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo, has never before been presented at the Israeli opera. Due to Covid-19 this all-new production is 100 % locally conceived, and it has an original take on the oft-told tale. Bellini’s opera is based on the 1818 play by Luigi Scevola, which reworked the Shakespearian tragedy for the Italian stage, and in Hanan Snir’s production, Romeo is a woman.
This idea isn’t particularly surprising, taking into consideration that Bellini composed the opera for female voices – soprano for Giulietta and mezzo-soprano for Romeo. Travesti was not unusual in 1830 when I Capuleti e i Montecchi was first performed. As the animosity between the two Verona families always seemed unreasonable, adding the dramatic twist of same-sex love seemed like an interesting concept, that is up until the first act.
A new backstory is appealingly choreographed during the overture. Two little convent girls run around between a group of nuns (a closer look reveals these are men in nuns’ habits). They are then replaced on the stage by the adult lovers they have grown to be. They are surprised by Giulietta’s brother, who draws a gun on Romeo – presumably because he doesn’t like the idea of his sister having an affair with a woman. A scuffle ensues and the brother ends up getting killed by Romeo.
When the first act begins, Tabaldo introduces himself with a romantic revenge aria (beautifully sung by the sweet-voiced Eitan Drory), and a bunch of men in uniforms supports his vow to kill Romeo. Tabaldo also demands Giulietta as his prize and her father (Noah Briger) is happy to accommodate. This is a poignant image of men deciding the fates of women.
But when Romeo arrives at the Capuleti mansion and offers peace, she is dressed in men’s garments and we realize no one knows she is actually a woman. This does not seem to connect with what we saw in the opening scene, and from then on, the truth of Romeo’s sex doesn’t seem to have any effect on the drama. It’s as if Snir did not trust his own idea enough to work it all the way through.
The time and place of the opera are not defined. The set, designed by Roni Toren, creates the first impression of a classic Italian mansion, and the men’s suits and uniforms are circa the 1930s. But Romeo and the Montecchi gang are dressed like gangsta rappers, and the effect is jarring, not in a good way.
Later there are more scuffles in which the men jump in and out of windows. This isn’t supported by a change in the lighting or the set, and the whole thing is a mess. Only the two little girls from the opening, who reappear every now and then, serve as a memory that somewhere in this mess is an interesting kernel.
While the direction is all over the place, Bellini’s score is served well by the orchestra and its conductor Dan Ettinger, who fleshes out every note. When the second act opens, a cellist is discovered sitting on the stage, where she beautifully plays the lyrical cello solo. She then gets off the stage leaving us to wonder what she did there, to begin with, as this idea is a one-off. Other solo bits, such as the clarinet’s which follows, do not get a similar treatment.
The one steady quality of this production is the soprano in the lead. Alla Vasilevitsky is in complete control of her dazzling voice, and she is a joy to behold. I Capuleti e i Montecchi doesn’t contain great hits such as Norma, Bellini’s most popular opera, but it does offer Giulietta a series of bel canto challenges, and Vasilevitsky is up to all of them. Tal Bergman is also a soprano. Here she is cast in the role of Romeo, a mezzo-soprano, and her singing isn’t as steady. Sometimes she disappears beneath the orchestra. But when the two of them sing a duet, it’s pure gold.
All in all, this is a half-baked production, with exquisite music and one stand-out performance that makes it all worthwhile.
- Music by Vincenzo Bellini
- Director: Hanan Snir
- Conductor: Dan Ettinger
- Set Designer: Roni Toren, Costume Designer: Paolina Adamov
- Sung in Italian with Hebrew and English surtitles
- Cast includes Alla Vasilevitsky, Tal Bergman, Noah Briger, Eitan Drory, Vladimir Braun
- The Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv