It doesn’t always follow that “undeserved” and “neglect” go together; this time, however, they do. For its third offering this season, the Los Angeles Opera reaches deep into the repertory of the forgotten, according Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Capuletti ed i Montecchi” the treatment worthy of a masterpiece, and demonstrates that the work deserves no less. Surprise mingled with delight among the cheering crowd at this viewing.
Composed in 1830, a year before his better-known “Norma,” with some of its music rescued by Bellini from earlier, failed scores, “The Capulets and the Montagues” derives its story from an obscure 16th-century Italian novel that Shakespeare also knew and handsomely used. Felice Romani’s libretto sets the star-crossed lovers on a battlefield of armed conflict between two warring families, with a somewhat older Romeo leading the invading Montagues against the entrenched Capulets. He and Juliet already have bedded down; she, however, is torn between love and family loyalty. The plot mechanisms differ from Shakespeare’s; the tragic ending is the same.
Maintaining an entrenched operatic tradition, Bellini set his Romeo as a mezzo soprano against Juliet’s high soprano, and rendered his surging, elegant score incandescent with the same spun-sugar duetting familiar in “Norma.” In solos and in rapturous togetherness at the Music Center, fast-rising young Americans Laura Claycomb (Juliet) and Susanne Mentzer (Romeo) come across as a pairing fashioned in vocal heaven.
The all-American supporting cast — Malcolm MacKenzie as sympathetic Friar Laurence, Eric Halfvarson as menacing elder Capulet and David Miller as Tybalt, who in this version is betrothed to Juliet — provide superb support.
On the podium, Britain’s Richard Hickox maintains a spirited, thrusting momentum. The ensemble that ends the first act — blood-brother to the time-honored “Sextet” from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” — is managed with a remarkable sense of balance.
From director Thor Steingraber came the notion of setting the work in the pre-Mussolini Italy of, say, 1910, a decision that may have saved the cost of aristocratic robes and gilded Italian palaces, but otherwise makes no particular case for or against. (Considering the advanced state of embalming by 1910, would the presumed-dead Juliet have been deposited intact in the family tomb?)
A pair of dancers act out the torments of the lovelorn principals, and help pass the time during Bellini’s long orchestral interludes. Robert Israel’s memorably spare stage design — free-standing pillars, a clouded sky as backdrop, and skeletal pieces outlining rooms, tombs and battlegrounds — are thoroughly convincing in suggesting no time or all time.
But nobody goes to bel canto opera for the scenery or the dancing. What Bellini was good at was long melodic lines, like human breathing transfigured, above the orchestra’s ever-so-gentle prodding that distills the harmony into the texture of idealized honey no other composer of his time could equal. The Los Angeles Opera reaches out and finds the magic.