Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Romeo – Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Giulietta – Olga Kulchynska (sop)
Tebaldo – Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Lorenzo – Roberto Lorenzi (bass-bar)
Capellio – Alexei Botnarciuc (bass)
Philharmonia Zürich, Chor der Oper Zürich/Fabio Luisi
Christof Loy (stage director)
Recorded live at the Opernhaus Zürich, June 2015
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo; DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC20353 DVD [139 mins]

Christof Loy generates as much dread in me as he piques my interest. I’ve been infuriated by as many of his productions as I’ve enjoyed – his Lucrezia Borgia (review), which I saw in Munich in 2014, remains the worst opera staging I’ve ever seen – and so I approached this DVD with extreme caution. It was a lot better than I’d feared, however. He brings new ideas to it, but they mostly fit, and in fact he enlightened certain aspects of the work that I hadn’t noticed before.

Loy’s focus is just how central death seems to be to the opera: he calls it, in the booklet notes, “one of the most pessimistic pieces I have ever encountered” and, to be fair to him, I had never before noticed just how frequently Giulietta invokes death as the solution to her problems. Loy reminds us that, unlike in Shakespeare, we see only the end of this relationship, not its beginning, and so the emotional trajectory is steadily downwards. As an explanation of why this is, Loy uses three generations of Giuliettas (via body doubles) and a (sometimes hyperactive) stage revolve to suggest that Giulietta is the victim of abuse from her father and the ultra-male environment in which she moves. She has no mother in this version, after all, and Loy underscores the masculinity of this world by dispensing with women in the wedding scene and having them sung by cross-dressing men instead. Th after-effects of this abuse induce Stockholm Syndrome, which explains why Giulietta is so reluctant to flee with Romeo. Loy also underscores the tragedy evoking the story’s future and suggesting the bloodshed that the strife between the Montagues and Capulets produces.

It doesn’t always work, and some of his trademark fussiness is there to irritate, most notably through the silent presence of a silent “companion” who swans about portentously and does very little. On the whole, though, I found rather compelling, and it does what regietheater does at its best, feasibly suggests a whole new meaning to the piece that you had never really noticed before.

It helps that the musical performance is so good, too. Superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato is marvellous as Romeo, shading her voice with masterful nuance and showing total versatility in the coloratura. Olga Kulchynska is well contrasted next to her, making a limpid, beautiful Giulietta, full of feminine poignancy and very beautiful tone. Almost finer, however, is the standout Tebaldo of Benjamin Bernheim, who has a fair claim to be the finest Tebaldo on disc. His tone, agility and purity are outstanding, meaning that his arias and ensembles are the highlights of the set for me. If Lorenzo and Capellio are a little more anonymous, then that’s as much Bellini’s fault as the singers’.

Fabio Luisi has a great time in the pit. He clearly loves this music, and writes as much in the booklet notes. This means he energises the orchestra so that they never “merely” provide the accompaniment but are instrumental to the piece’s success. The standard is set high in the overture, and the characteristic bel canto “chuckle” is very well done throughout. The instrumental obbligati are uniformly excellent, too.

My only real criticisms are that there are no extras and that the surround sound comes across as rather boxy, to my ears. Everything else about the packaging is very tempting, however, and it adds a finishing touch to a very attractive set. We don’t have a “pleasant surprise” award, but if we had I’d bestow it here.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Robert Farr

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