Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

ONP Bastille, Thursday June 5 2008

Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Production: Robert Carsen. Sets & Costumes: Michael Levine. Lighting: Davy Cunningham. Capellio: Giovanni Battista Parodi. Giulietta: Anna Netrebko. Romeo: Joyce DiDonato. Tebaldo: Matthew Polenzani. Lorenzo: Mikhail Petrenko. Orchestra & Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

What on earth does it take to make anything remotely approaching a silk purse out of this sow's ear of an opera? We had Netrebko, we had DiDonato and we had Polenzani in a Carsen production, and were still so bored (my neighbour had already turned to me and groaned "Je m'ennuie" during a scene change) that after what seemed like hours, all three of us in agreement, we escaped to dinner at the end of act 1.

I doubt very much that Carsen came back to supervise this reprise; if he did (who's to tell? The programme notes said nothing) it didn't show. The neighbour I mentioned above complained, as we crossed the square to find a place to eat, bitterly. She said that (a) it took her back to Limoges when she was young (that was not meant to be a compliment) and (b) "Any fool can put chairs round a table, that wasn't a mise en scène at all." I must say, for Carsen it was surprisingly dull. The Capulets (or was it the Montagues? Juliet's lot) were all in plum-red velvet doublets and hose, and, no doubt to show up their unthinking, knee-jerk sentiments, all moved the same way at once: turn to the right, unsheathe swords (there were a lot of swords), thrust them forward, turn to the left, sheathe them again... The others (whichever they are) were in black. And in this Manichean world of men, Juliet stood out in virginal white.

The modular sets were high walls of blood-swept rectangular panels that turned this way and that as necessary to form uncomfortable, angular spaces: a meeting hall, Juliet's bedroom and some corridors, a chapel... furnished with long tables and four-square black chairs. Things did liven up a bit during the inter-clan clash: dry-ice smoke and slow-motion swashbuckling, and there was nice "old master" lighting. But on the whole it was a static production and gave off no emotion - not even the principals. The chorus acted as if unrehearsed, making totally unconvincing brutes and reminding me of Met extras at their worst, and there were some hitches with doors not opening, etc...

Pido in the pit did nothing to breathe fire into this truly dire score ("indigent" was the word that came to mind; you could see the orchestra members hating it). Instead of grabbing the thing firmly by the balls and running, he preferred just to bounce it up and down on his knees, so neither Netrebko's full, round sound and real trills (but dodgy intonation, occasionally short breath - she's five months gone - and overall placidness) nor even DiDonato's usual commitment and ringing, even at times shrill urgency succeeded in bringing it to life.

But also, two of us had had the same thought: the Bastille's usually discreet "Carmen" acoustic enhancement system (not something the house publicizes, of course) was set too loud. This was not natural sound, not a convincing evening of live musical theatre. It was a wall of sound: Polenzani's first notes rang out clarion-like from his corner at the rear of the stage, voices had no distinct direction and there was no change of volume whether Netrebko was facing the audience or had her back to us. DiDonato's shrillness was highlighted to the point of ugliness.

Perhaps we imagined it. No-one has mentioned amplification on the web fora, let alone in a press review. Maybe all three of us were in a collective foul mood. Whatever the case, by 9 we were across the square at the Petit Bofinger, scrutinizing the menu. And to be honest, if I never hear a Bellini opera again, I won't regret it. Give me a Bellini cocktail, paintings by any of the Bellini bunch, but, even though he's a neighbour of mine, an opera by Bellini...

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