From the outside looking in, there are so many reasons for Curtis Opera Theater not to mount Bellini's bel canto version of the Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, you couldn't help walking into the Thursday opening with utmost skepticism.
Casting this piece is tough enough for world-class opera companies: It requires high-wire Olympic-gold-medal singing as well as a cultivated, highly specific style. Theatrically speaking, these operas can seem hopelessly static and antiquated.
Yet even if one came away from Thursday's performance less than astounded, it was certainly impressive on nearly all fronts. Even if the run is cancelled (as was Friday's performance following the death of a Curtis student; see updates on www.curtis.edu), this performance needs to be noted as a matter of history.
The opera is based more on the popular Italian plays that preceded its 1830 creation than on anything Shakespearean, so stage director Emma Griffin thoughtfully shied away from any long-ago-Verona setting and instead reflected the composer's own world. Though presented at the Prince Music Theater, the stage (with sets by Laura Jellinek) was made to seem smaller and shallower, decorated with ornate floral wallpaper and layer upon layer of Corinthian columns that created an artificial sense of perspective, and felt, in many ways, like a theatrical time-travel portal.
Simulated footlights, formalwear from the 1830s, and a stylized, melodramatic body language set up exactly the right expectations: This is not theater as a simulation of real life but a simulation of theater from a bygone era. The artifice was there to be enjoyed for its own aesthetic sake, not for what it attempted to represent. Never did you feel you were being sold a bill of goods, even amid the obvious credibility lapse of Romeo being sung by a mezzo-soprano. Nor was the opera a mere singing contest with a Romeo and Juliet plot; it was more like a fantasy on the theme of Romeo and Juliet.
Thus, the cast wasn't expected to deliver a depth of characterization more associated with Shakespeare than with a mainstream bel canto opera such as this. But the principal singers were thoroughly convincing, even if their approach toward bel canto style was self conscious. Soprano Sarah Shafer had all of the right equipment to sing Giulietta (once a Beverly Sills role) even though she didn't truly fuse her ornate coloratura music into a vivid characterization until Act II. More remarkable was Nian Wang as Romeo: Her coloratura technique was incredibly clean, fresh and effortless. With her appropriately masculine stage presence, you felt all the necessary pathos.
The other big news was Tebaldo (Giulietta's fiancé): Christopher Tiesi's plaintive, soft-grained tenor with a small but fast vibrato was pleasantly reminiscent of the young Joseph Calleja - and not just because Calleja happens to have appeared in the most recent recording of Capuleti. How often do you come away from an opera feeling that the tenor role was too short?
And those who came away surprised that the opera itself didn't wear out its welcome weren't mistaken: With a number of choruses excised, the running time was roughly two hours - even with conductor David Hayes' languid Act I tempos.