Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 1984 production of Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story has been revived at the Royal Opera House, with two star singers. Mezzo Elina Garanca and soprano Anna Netrebko are the two young lovers caught up in the family feud between the Capulets and Montagues.
The opera doesn’t follow Shakespeare’s play exactly, not surprisingly as he was scarcely known to the composer and his librettist, but it is completely recognisable. There are fight scenes and a final tomb scene that is very familiar but no balcony, no Mercutio and only a skeletal outline of the story.
Critics gave the performance four stars all round, with most acknowledging that it was the lead singers who made the evening (the word “inert” crops up rather a lot in respect to the production). Garanca emerges as the bigger star of the two, although there’s some criticism of both singers bel canto style (and un-Italian phrasing and diction).
Conductor Mark Elder gets generally good press for his first Bellini opera, in particular his sympathetic accompaniment of the vocal lines.
Simon Thomas on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The only reason for reviving Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 25 year old production is to showcase a duo of exceptional singers and that’s what we get here in the delectable shapes of Latvian mezzo Erina Garanca and Russian soprano Anna Netrebko… Garanca strikes a handsome figure as Romeo, with singing to match… A modernised, conceptual approach would undoubtedly have got in the way and one can’t help admiring the efficiency and unobtrusiveness of Pizzi’s production… The first aria of Netrebko’s Giulietta, with lovely harp accompaniment, sets the tone for an evening-long meditation on beauty of tone and form… Mark Elder conducts Bellini’s score with requisite grace… This is an evening of old-fashioned staging, acting and operatic glamour and there’s no harm in that now and again.”
Richard Morrison in The Times (four stars) – “Anna Netrebko has of course had the lion's share of the pre-production limelight. But it's the Romeo of the gloriously ardent Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca who steals the show... Her passagework is as scintillating as her swordplay, her top C is terrific, and she is touching as a proud young man in love.. It's this dramatic credibility that gives her the edge over Netrebko's Giulietta. The Russian's voice has a more metallic edge these days… This, plus some affected swoops, initially makes her Juliet seem too much the sophisticated woman rather than the ingenuous girl… But in all other respects - and especially the elegant and light-footed orchestral playing - this is sumptuous music-making, with Mark Elder giving a masterclass in how to accompany singers intent on taking whopping metrical liberties with almost every phrase. “
Andrew Clark in The Financial Times - “In its 25-year lifetime the show has seen lesser vocal talents than Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko but more intensity than they summoned on Monday…Their voices blend well: there’s not a trace of rasping or edginess. Garanca cuts a credible figure as the young leader of the Montecchi and sings with admirable evenness and nobility; Netrebko is hardly the fragile, waif-like Juliet of one’s dreams but “Oh quante volte”, the opera’s best-known number, sounds appropriately pretty… The problem is that neither sets the pulse racing… Netrebko’s performance is static and let down by poor Italian diction. Garanca goes through the motions of passion without making us believe it… Mark Elder and the orchestra give secure, supple support. With less than impressive comprimario singing, it’s not enough to remove the smell of a performance that merely goes through the motions.”
Barry Millington in The Evening Standard (four stars) – “If pushed, one would have to admit that Garanca has the edge. Her mezzo is stunningly impressive... Yet something was missing. Neither Garanca nor Netrebko quite swept one off one’s feet. Was it first night caution or the almost risibly inert production of Pier Luigi Pizzi? Pizzi’s sets (designed by himself) and deeply unimaginative stage movement were passé even in 1984; today they are unacceptably feeble… The men of the ROH chorus, helpfully colour coded in their florid cloaks (except when in disguise), do the inanely warring factions proud… Mark Elder provides an exquisitely phrased, meticulously calibrated aural backdrop to the vocal riches. And it is Garanca and Netrebko on whom the spotlight indubitably falls. Whatever the reservations, the calibre of their singing is exceptional. It’s worth putting up with the inchoate production to witness such vocal accomplishment.”
Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph (four stars) - “Perhaps they wouldn't score straight tens with those who insist on the purest bel canto style: neither of them being native Italian… their articulation and colouring of the text is imprecise. Netrebko lacks a firm trill, and Garanca's lowest register is relatively weak. But what fabulously healthy voices they both have, and how thrillingly they wield them… Pier Luigi Pizzi's handsome if somewhat inert and flavourless production still looks elegant after 25 years, though the lighting was unhelpful and a wandering Corinthian pillar made everyone giggle.. The only substantial drawback to the evening, however, was the dreadful coughing in the auditorium - evidence of a genuine epidemic, I think, rather than boredom, but very distracting none the less.”