Fresh on the heels of its extraordinary opera festival in February, which featured the only full-length live opera performances in North America since the start of pandemic shutdowns over a year ago, Palm Beach Opera has forged ahead with a scheduled performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto telling of the Romeo and Juliet story.
A success at its Venetian premiere in 1830, I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) was adapted from an Italian play by the dramatist Luigi Scevola (1770–1819) rather than the classic by Shakespeare, whose works only came into vogue in Italy later in the nineteenth century. Though the play ends in essentially the same plangent denouement as the Bard’s star-crossed tragedy, it is steeped in Italian history and honor culture as only an Italian playwright could describe. Here the Capulets and Montagues are not merely feuding families, “both alike in dignity,” vying for mastery of Verona, but rival Guelphs and Ghibellines fighting on behalf of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, respectively, during the two factions’ protracted contest for control of medieval Italy. When the curtain rises, Giulietta (Juliet) has already met and fallen in love with Romeo, who in this version has killed her brother in battle, while Tebaldo (Tybalt) is inconveniently betrothed to her as a reward for his loyal service to her father, Capellio (Capulet). The rival suitors share grief upon Giulietta’s presumed death but continue fighting, with each rather fantastically calling upon the other to kill him in order to relieve the unbearable pain of losing her.
Even in normal times Palm Beach Opera, like most American companies, tends to stage standard repertoire works so as to fill seats. Its Discovery Series, however, aims to present less frequently heard operas performed by members of its highly competitive Benenson Young Artist Program. I Capuleti e i Montecchi was announced last season, and the performance was even held on the originally planned date of March 21, pandemic notwithstanding. Only the location changed, as pandemic restrictions have pushed the company to perform outdoors. But while the main season’s offerings were adapted for festival performances at West Palm Beach’s vast iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre, this lightly staged performance directed by Paul Curran unfolded at the recently expanded Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. That institution possesses an elegant sculpture garden that conveys the intimacy of a performance from opera’s earliest days, when the first works in the art form were performed privately in the crowded rooms of urban palazzi. So efficient was the delivery of sound in the sculpture garden that no amplification was required.
The smaller scale was a welcome change but necessitated a reduced orchestra performing a chamber version of the score. Fortunately, such a reduction already existed, originally prepared for Opera San Antonio by Antony Walker, the music director of Pittsburgh Opera. His reduced score is for string quartet, horn, clarinet, flute, and piano. It was “trimmed,” as Palm Beach Opera’s general director David Walker explained by email, to eliminate the large choruses and larger orchestral sections and tighten the focus on the interactions between the main characters. During rehearsals the production’s conductor, Greg Ritchey, Palm Beach Opera’s Associate Conductor and Chorus Master, made further edits and redistributed some musical lines in the instrumentation to adjust for dramatic pacing. It is hard to imagine anyone more familiar with this adapted work than Ritchey, and he led a swift, compact performance.
Programming this lesser known work with young artists revealed considerable talent in development. The soprano Patricia Westley sang lithely as Giulietta, with a limpid technique that befits the role of one of Bellini’s grander heroines. She may have imagined a more sumptuous event for her starring role debut, but her return to Palm Beach Opera was nevertheless welcome. Romeo is a “trouser role”—a female singer in character as a man—in this opera, and the mezzo-soprano Jenny Anne Flory showed much promise. Her duets with Westley were fine showcases for the talents of both singers. The tenor Moisés Salazar made an even stronger impression in the role of Tebaldo, which in this version of the tale requires a pathos not normally associated with the character in Shakespeare. The bass-baritone Christopher Humbert, Jr. was a moving Capellio. The chorus was disappointingly reduced to only two singers, though Juan Hernández and Steven Ricks did their level best to substitute for a full chorus’s worth of exposition and accompaniment.
In the coming weeks Palm Beach Opera is poised to announce its 2021–22 season. Life should be more normal by then. An April Liederabend, to be held at the capacious National Croquet Center in West Palm, awaits in the meantime.