Opera review: I Capuleti e i Montecchi; La fedeltà premiata

The dazzling Anna Netrebko is back - but is she outsung?

I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Royal Opera House, London WC2, to 11 Apr

La fedeltà premiata
Royal Academy of Music, London NW1

Back on the British stage six months after giving birth, the sensational Russian soprano Anna Netrebko was the chief attraction of the Royal Opera's 1984 staging of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Mere mention of Netrebko's name brings on a hot flush in men d'un certain age: she looks fabulous, communicates warmly, humorously, daringly and sexily, and her voice has rare focus and range. But can any of us resist a performer who, in the city of Krasnodar 37 years ago, was born to thrill an audience?

Bellini's version of Romeo and Juliet, dashed off hurriedly to meet a late deadline for the 1830 Venice carnival, allows us to sample only a fraction of Netrebko's talent. Despite glorious choruses and a near relentless, turbo-driven outpouring of hot-blooded arias and coloratura spectacle - vividly and lyrically steered by conductor Mark Elder - the work remains thin and decaffeinated. The stony intransigence of director-designer Pier Luigi Pizzi's traditional production, all vast columns and suicidal gloom, compounds the problem.

Much of the orchestral writing, however stirring, follows set formulas, so our ears delight at the suddenly unexpected: a solo clarinet, cello or horn, in each case beautifully played, or the strange downward harmonic lurch in the Act I finale, when the lovers' fate is sealed. Giulietta's celebrated and exacting first aria, "Oh! quante volte", with its floating lines and melismatic cascades, stands out on a different level of subtlety. Unsurprisingly, the opera languished until a revival of interest in Bellini in the middle of the last century.

There is no value in comparing this skimmed account of the lovers' tragedy, taken from Italian sources, to Shakespeare's richly faceted version. Instead, Bellini tilts the drama towards Romeo, a travesti role here stunningly sung by the Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca (who has recorded it with Netrebko for a new DG recording). As tall as the shapely Netrebko but slim and boyish, Garanca tossed off her firework arias with glowing, sumptuous tone and athletic precision, winning tumultuous applause.

Giulietta remains all too wan and insipid a creature for Netrebko's sparkling abilities, merely the goal at which Romeo hurls his passion, a solo striker in Montague blue attempting to bypass her Capulet defenders in red. Eric Owens (Capellio - red) and Giovanni Battista Parodi (Lorenzo - bluish-purple) were strong in support, as was the chorus. This colour coding was one of the more active elements in Pizzi's supine production.

Though beguiling as ever, Netrebko sounded a notch below form, tonally cloudy with occasional dry notes. There appears little consensus about the effects of childbirth on the voice, except the unpredictability. Some singers are back within weeks, unscathed, but in Germany many opera houses frown on a return before nine months. Apart from the general physical or mental havoc, there's a practical issue of ensuring the still fragile musculature can support the voice. The maternal Netrebko was exciting, but different. It's early days. We must see where her new voice leads.

The young singers in the Royal Academy of Music's opera school are a good decade behind Netrebko and Garanca in their careers, but the freshness and commitment of their Haydn staging, which closes tomorrow, gave pure pleasure. These conservatoire productions - also an important feature at the Royal College, Guildhall, Royal Northern and elsewhere - offer the public a chance to see rare repertoire and spot rising stars, who always work alongside experienced professionals. Trevor Pinnock conducted a bristling performance of La fedeltà premiata, with a witty, Big Brother reality TV setting by the young director Alessandro Talevi. Angela Bic, Fu Qian, Thomas Hobbs and the rest of this excellent cast are names to watch.

True, the brash updating takes liberties, and purists might rue the absence of pastoral. But the work is robust enough to survive, and is even the better for it. You knew who was who in a plot of manic complexity, with much face slapping, many tears, a few satyrs and a wild boar. For the first time it seemed possible that Haydn's operas might, after all, find new life in the theatre. The music flickers dizzyingly between darkness and light, the heartfelt arias and ensembles so often foreshadowing the operatic genius of Mozart, who in the next few years would spin this silken silver into gold.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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