In review: Pop Up Opera's I Capuleti e i MontecchiReview
The raw concrete cylinder of the Thames Tunnel Shaft at the Brunel Museum is a delicious spot for an opera. The acoustics are generous, the space is adaptive, and for companies like Pop Up Opera, who specialize in unorthodox performance venues, there’s a gritty, blank-slate quality that’s conducive to getting creative with classic operas.
Pop Up Opera’s touring production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi has traveled across the southern UK for nearly a month, and it’s impressive that the production, directed by James Hurley, feels at home in its latest London venue. The action takes place in the round, and the cast of five make a handful of forays into the crowd; it’s one of the advantages - responsibilities, even - of performing with an audience at arm’s length.
In addition to the cast, what worked well were the mobile, minimal set pieces and creative use of lighting. The scattering of chairs, suitcases, and fluorescent light bulbs evoked a desperate, secret tale that matched the frustrating and familiar story of Bellini’s opera, based on the star cross’d lovers in Shakespeare’s play. Flora McIntosh had a hardy, masculine sound that seemed almost recklessly loud; her Romeo felt at once a pillar of strength, and a man nearing a state of having nothing left to lose.
Alice Privett was a perfect foil as Giulietta; with the air of a young woman forced to grow up quickly, she sang with a thoughtful, lovely sound that seemed to match her big, sad eyes. Cliff Zammit-Stevens was a gritty, dangerous Tebaldo, paired with the imposing figure of Capellio, sung by Andrew Tipple. Richard Immerglück was a sympathetic Lorenzo, a character left largely helpless both by Shakespeare and by Felice Romani, Bellini’s librettist.
Music Director and pianist Berrak Dyer handled the unforgiving score, opting for mercifully brisk tempi and keeping a smart pace between numbers. The piano was indeed in need of a fresh tuning - something of which Dyer was likely acutely aware. Still, she lacked the rhythmic steadiness and precision that creates the bel canto style; dotted figures lazed into triplets, and jarring, unintentional tempo changes altered the architecture of Bellini’s score.
What worked less well were certain directive choices by Hurley, and the delineation between what constitutes set pieces, versus available audience space. What turned out to be prop chairs (and the spaces they occupied) had been hijacked by innocent listeners, who used them to find a preferred place to watch the show; flood lights were placed in spots that were easily obscured by the feet of unaware audience members.
Hurley made good use of the scary amounts of time and space in Bellini’s opera, yet some of his choices felt distractive rather than communicative. Too often he decided that pain and fear were the motivations for the singers’ dramatic high notes, perhaps not trusting the melodies’ affects on their own. Giulietta’s famous aria, “O quante volte”, was weakened by the constant presence of Lorenzo; what could have been a moving soliloquy by Privett was a strange one-sided conversation. Halfway through, Lorenzo discovers the hidden Romeo, drawing our attention unjustly away from a still, lovely moment in the opera.
Pop Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a great opportunity to hear rising talent, singing major roles that suit them well. The show has one more performance at the Brunel Museum, and then heads to Freshwater, Isle of Wight on 8 April.