At least Bellini's librettist Felice Romani didn't have the affront to call the opera "Romeo and Juliet". Bad enough that the star-crossed lovers are still thus named because precious little Shakespeare, leave alone his finely tuned sense of proportion, remains. Much is made, of course, of the warring families of the title and in Pier Luigi Pizzi's classic – meaning rather emptily statuesque – production of 1984 they are colour-coded for our convenience. So which team are you backing – the red or the blue?
Me, I'm backing the combustible pairing of Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca whose charismatic presence, vocal and physical, lends a whole new ring to the phrase "star-crossed". Never mind the Shakespeare, feel the vocal style. There's a stylist in the pit, too – Mark Elder – and for all his somewhat thankless task of driving Bellini's bouncy martial toe-tappers, he is a vital part here of moulding those accompanied recitatives and sensitively shadowing the subtle rubatos of the vocal embellishments. He and the orchestra did a great job and I should single out, as did Bellini, the horn, cello, and clarinet obbligati which so evocatively enhance the mood of their respective interludes.
But the real drama emerges between the vocal chords of our two stars. Netrebko pretty much had Giulietta, the reluctant bride, sewn up here. There were a couple of notes that didn't quite land, odd phrases that didn't quite sustain, but for the most part she was riveting. Her glorious entrance aria "Oh! Quante volte" was blessed with a limpid legato and an ability to meld her lovelorn sighs into the portamento. No one should underestimate the technique required to sustain the musical line to meaningful effect – there is nowhere to hide; and those attacks above the stave where the sound instantly evaporates to a thread of sound – are an essential part of the bel canto soprano's armoury and Netrebko milks them.
Equally impressive was Garanca's Romeo. Her fabulous instrument is evenly and amply produced throughout the range and Bellini employs each not to thrilling effect. But it is in the union of these well-matched voices where the opera comes into its own. How startling is that unison passage at the end of act one – a great vocal allegory for so near and yet so far.
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