I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I shuffled past elegantly dressed opera-goers in the cavernous Lisner Auditorium Sunday evening. My experience with opera is mostly limited to Bugs Bunny’s definitive performance in The Rabbit of Seville, which, although surely a work of art in its own right, did little to prepare me (or so I imagined) for Vincenzo Bellini’s 1830 Romanticist masterpiece, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. But despite my relative lack of expertise in Classical Opera, I found the performance immensely engaging and beautiful. Remarkable technical skill was the hallmark of the evening, both on the part of the singers and the orchestra that accompanied them. The Washington Concert Opera can take satisfaction in creating one more opera-lover among their ranks.
To be clear: I Capuleti e i Montecchi is not exactly the story of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s close enough for easy understanding. Actually, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet was an expanded version of a much older story. This original story, about two warring political factions (rather than feuding families) features the famous star cross’d lovers, and Italicized versions of Tybalt (Tebaldo, played by David Portillo), Lord Capulet (Capelio, played by Jeffrey Beruan), and Friar Lawrence (Lorenzo, played by Liam Moran). All of the other characters are stripped away, leaving behind a much pared-down version of the classic tragic love story.
Given the name of the WCO, I Capuleti e i Montecchi was naturally a concert version of Bellini’s opera, meaning there was no set and minimal staging. The actors performed with music stands, and behind them sat the orchestra and a two dozen-strong male chorus that provided frequent backup vocals. Thus, even more so than a usual opera, this production truly was all about the music. And what music it was – Conductor (and WCO Artistic Director) Antony Walker led his army of musicians through the peaks and valleys of Bellini’s melodies. Sometimes placid, sometimes exuberant, the WCO orchestra, guided by the enthusiastic gestures of Maestro Walker, displayed remarkable musical range and pinpoint precision.
Although the instrumental music was very enjoyable, the true highlight of the show was the vocal performances. As Romeo, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey exercised remarkable control over her instrument, sounding delicate and vulnerable in one moment, and in the next steely and masculine. Although it may seem odd today, in Bellini’s time it was quite common to cast females in male opera roles, in part so that the voices of the two leads could blend more pleasingly. Indeed, the most moving parts of the performance were when Ms. Lindsey sang duets with Giulietta, played by the wonderful Nicole Cabell. Ms. Cabell was a late addition to I Capuleti, but she sounded fully prepared when she sang the role. In contrast with Ms. Lindsey’s precise, almost restrained technique, Ms. Cabell’s sound seemed to overflow and splash around the space, setting up a dynamic that worked best when both voices were in concert. David Portillo also deserves credit for making the most out of his supporting role as Tebaldo, Giulietta’s groom-to-be (not cousin, as Tybalt is in Shakespeare’s R & J). His rich and exuberant tenor vocals provided a nice male vocal contrast.
There was no shattering glass on Sunday evening, nor did a fat lady sing to mark the end of the show. But my first experience with opera was nevertheless highly entertaining, demonstrating how when talented artists come together to show off their skills, they can turn any audience member into an afficiando. I may not have seen Bugs in a blonde wig, but I did leave humming a little Bellini.
Il Capuleti e i Montecchi played on September 28, 2014 at the Washington Concert Opera, performing at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University – 730 21st Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For more information about the WCO, visit their website. To see upcoming performances at Lisner, click here.