This performance was in the Barbican
Theatre, whereas the recent Thaïs had been in the Concert
Hall. The change of acoustic brought with it, initially, a truckload
of fears: the sound space did not seem to help the orchestra at all
in the overture, highlighting its weaknesses. A shame, as right from
the start Richard Bonynge, completely at home here in the bel canto
repertoire, showed a wonderful sense of timing. As one’s ears became
accustomed to the sound, it became clear this evening had the potential
to be very special indeed.
Although based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’,
this is not the celestially entwined couple of Shakespeare. Bellini’s
librettist, Felice Romani, used Italian sources for the opera. It is
important not to castigate the work for this and instead to see it in
its own right. The other aspect of the work perhaps in defiance of expectations
is that the two principal parts are both taken by women (soprano and
mezzo: Romeo was written for Bellini’s leading mezzo, Giuditta Grisi).
As it happens, the latter element was just as well on the present occasion,
for the female singers far outshone the male voices.
Sarah Connolly’s Romeo established
itself right from the outset. Proud and powerful yet capable of great
emotional affect, Connolly sang with great lyricism. Her voice was strong
over all registers and in addition she managed to get to the drama behind
Juliet enters in the second scene,
alone in her apartment. It was easy to believe this Juliet’s distress,
as Dina Kuznetsova poured out her emotions in a stream of melody and
coloratura that was a joy to hear. The horn soloist was just as impressive,
the melody beautifully shaped and full of commendably clean slurs. It
is later in this scene that we hear the titular couple together for
the first time, and it was immediately apparent that they work perfectly
together, Connolly capable of thrilling affirmation (‘Si, fuggire’),
Kuznetsova of truly beautiful sounds. Throughout all this, the orchestra
subtly provided the dramatic impetus. Pacing was spot on. The climax
of the opera in Act 2 of course centres on these two characters, and
they did not disappoint. Connolly was heart-rendingly searching, Kuznetsova
hardly less so (perhaps even more worthy of praise as she had to sing
lying flat on her back!).
The discrepancy between female
and male standard became obvious in Act 2 Scene 2, when Romeo is pitted
against Tebaldo (Rhys Meirion). There was no comparison. Connelly brought
silence to the audience in just one line; Meirion was merely a singer
from the Valleys who happened to have wandered on-set.
Brindley Sherratt as Capellio
was the only male voice of real note. Graeme Danby’s Lorenzo was mainly
notable for the fact that the voice was acceptable, the acting a complete
It would be good to see a full
staging of this opera. Still, the close resonates in the mind for long
after the actual end of the opera.