"Romeo and Juliet" without Shakespeare – it’s a seemingly impossible prospect. Yet that's what San Francisco Opera is serving up in "The Capulets and the Montagues," a messy production that surprisingly turns into a rare musical treat featuring vocal brilliance.
Vincenzo Bellini and his hapless librettist discarded Shakespeare and came up with their own static, nonsensical version of the story in the 1830 opera.
Visually, the Bavarian State Opera-San Francisco co-production in the War Memorial Opera House is a bewildering combination of Vincent Boussard's bizarre direction, Vincent Lemaire's disorienting sets, and Christian Lacroix's phantasmagorical costumes.
From the opening scene of the Capulets milling about (blocking the soloists) in stovepipe hats under a cloud of suspended saddles, to the final scene of poor Juliet ridiculously standing motionless (to portray her in death), distractions and self-indulgent bits are piled on.
But it doesn’t matter, because the production is wonderful, both vocally and musically.
Singing radiantly and joyously, separately and together, Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and and Nicole Cabell as Juliet were outstanding on opening night Saturday. DiDonato is well-known and treasured in these parts; Cabell’s local debut was striking and memorable.
In addition to vocal challenges of the score, Cabell also had to put up with the director's harebrained instructions to climb up on a sink to sing one aria and balance on the edge of a barrier for the next.
Through it all, she sang like an angel, her voice soaring through the big hall effortlessly.
Riccardo Frizza conducted the orchestra in an exciting, splendid performance. Jose Gonzales Granero (clarinet), Kevin Rivard (French horn), and Thalia Moore (cello), among others, contributed beautiful solos.
The opera chorus, led by Ian Robertson, had yet another triumph, with strong, focused sound.
Eric Owens breezed through the role of Juliet's father, Adler Fellow Ao Li made a strong impression as Doctor (not Friar) Lorenzo.
In his San Francisco debut, Saimir Pirgu as Tybalt didn't measure up to reviews he has received in Europe. In the first act, he shouted and faltered in high notes, but he improved by the duet in the crypt with Romeo near the end.
Major, and confusing, diversions from Shakespeare’s story include the points that Romeo killed Juliet's brother, and cousin Tybalt – not Paris, who isn’t in this version – wants to marry Juliet. Worst of the lot is Juliet, in a unrecognizable demeanor: conflicted, hesitating, resisting, going mad, similarly to Donizetti's Lucia.
The director also commands mind-boggling physical distance between the two lovers; their much-deserved hugs will only come from the audience.