Run, ye lovers of fabulous voices.
Run as quickly as you can to War Memorial Opera House. That's where mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and soprano Nicole Cabell will astonish you as Romeo and Juliet in "The Capulets and the Montagues" by Vincenzo Bellini. These two singers are wiping the floor with the rest of the cast in San Francisco Opera's production of the famous story of hot love doomed by a blood rivalry in old Verona.
This attractive hipster coproduction with Munich's Bavarian State Opera opened Saturday, and there's nothing wrong with the rest of the cast. But standing in the presence of DiDonato and Cabell, the other singers are sort of just there, shouting away, struggling to be heard in cavernous War Memorial, with its wonky acoustics. DiDonato and Cabell might as well be singing in your ear -- their voices have such beaming power, clarity and beauty.
Bellini festooned his opera -- "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" is its official title -- with melodies so transparent that emotions should just flood straight through them. This is what happened Saturday with these two singers. Their love duet, in Act I, exemplified an operatic ideal: streaming garlands of bel canto song, braiding voices in close harmony, moving like soft clouds, or pinwheels, or pirouettes. It was thrilling to hear something this difficult accomplished so easily and beautifully.
For sheer sumptuous gorgeousness, Cabell's voice is hard to beat: "Oh! Quante volte," Juliet's song of longing for Romeo, was exquisite, filled with soaring and silky arabesques. This is Cabell's debut with San Francisco Opera -- and her first time singing this role anywhere. Remarkable. (By the way, librettist Felice Romani derived his tale from Italian sources, not from Shakespeare.)
But over the long haul, as the story moved further into the shadows -- toward sleeping potions and death -- DiDonato dominated. She has a history with this trouser role, and is such an actor; her very presence incited the orchestra (conducted by Riccardo Frizza) to much of its best playing. Her "Deh! Tu bell' anima" -- that grief-stricken number, in which Romeo begs Juliet's soul to take him to heaven -- was heart-meltingly delivered.
A couple of oddities must be noted. Were DiDonato's shiny black shoes squeaking throughout the performance? Sounded like it. And what can explain director Vincent Boussard's decision to have Cabell sing "Quante" while standing atop a kitchen sink?
No idea. Maybe the director was desperate, straining to establish some action amid Vincent Lemaire's sleekly minimalist sets.
The empty chambers of Capellio's palace -- stronghold of the Capulets, home to Juliet, whose room contains nothing but that kitchen sink -- are bare-walled. Those cold gray walls are traced with remnants of a fresco; we see the shadows of great beasts, some in their death throes.
It looks like a prehistoric hunting scene, like ancient cave art. The inference is that these warring families -- Juliet's Capulets and Romeo's Montagues -- aren't far removed from animal violence. It's a hopeless situation; the violence will overrun the purest love, the love of Romeo and Juliet.
The director, whose pacing falters in the second act, keeps pinning his protagonists in the corners of rooms: They are alone, trapped like animals. That's the message.
Or he has Juliet fighting to maintain her physical balance as she sings, creeping along the very front edge of the stage in Act II. It's overdone, the message too blatant: Juliet, like all women, must fight to maintain equilibrium in a world dominated by mad men. Even the members of the women's chorus -- who sing only while offstage -- have their mouths stuffed with flowers when on stage. They are throttled, mere ornaments in a man's world.
Of the other cast members, the best was baritone Ao Li as Lorenzo, physician to the Capulets. His voice had a pleasurable flow, like wine from a bottle. As Capellio, Juliet's vengeful father, bass-baritone Eric Owens showed appropriate menace; his voice had an edge like sharpened stone. But he lacked firepower. So did Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, as Tebaldo, Romeo's rival. His upper range was constricted. In his Act II duet with DiDonato, she blew him away.
The chorus was in fine form; lots of robust singing. Costumed by fashion designer Christian Lacroix, the men wore gray period suits and top hats. The colorfully arrayed women looked as if they had stepped out of a high-end thrift shop and into a punky display ad for Vanity Fair.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA
Presenting "The Capulets and the Montagues" by Bellini
Through: Oct. 19
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco