Looking disconcertingly like the country-pop singer k.d. lang in her handsome suit and tie, British mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly is a thoroughly convincing and authentically dashing Romeo in City Opera’s new production of “The Capulets and the Montagues,” Vincenzo Bellini’s 1830 opera based on the tale of the ill-fated lovers that also inspired Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.
Connolly’s impressive performance as the ardent young lover ready to make war in order to win his love also was vocally accomplished: She sings Bellini’s endlessly lapping melodies, alternately martial and mournful, with terrific command of bel canto style. The voice is rich and nuanced and handsomely colored, and only some curious noises that appeared to be emanating from City Opera’s controversial amplification system marred this talented performer’s otherwise triumphant return to the company, where she first won acclaim in the title role of Handel’s “Ariodante” in 1999.
Mary Dunleavy’s Giulietta was equally wonderful, a dramatically strong and vocally thrilling performance. The opera’s Giulietta is torn between loyalty to her clan and her rapturous love for Romeo, causing anguished outpourings wrapped in luscious melody. Dunleavy’s polished, powerful soprano was up to the various challenges of her music, which requires immense agility and an ability to alternate delicate pianissimos with ringing top notes.
Perhaps most affectingly, Connolly’s and Dunleavy’s voices melted together with heart-stopping beauty in the duets. Conductor Joseph Rescigno kept tempos fairly brisk during the opera’s more heated moments, and supported the singers with sensitivity during the more expansive scenes.
Bellini’s version of the tale, with a serviceable libretto by Felice Romani, was not adapted from Shakespeare’s play but effectively follows the general line of the familiar tragedy. Thor Steingraber’s clean, competent production updated the tale to somewhere around the turn of the last century — both swords and guns were brandished by the combatants — and kept fuss to a minimum.
Robert Israel’s costumes were perhaps more stylish than his bare-bones sets. Only the tuxedo-clad chorus of Capulets struck an occasionally affected note, lining up in self-conscious poses that somehow struck a comic, Gilbert & Sullivan-ish note.
Although the title seems to emphasize the warring clans, the opera does not give significant vocal time to the secondary characters. However, Raul Hernandez, as Romeo’s rival Tebaldo (that’s Tybalt), had some fine moments once his solid, slightly stolid tenor had warmed up, as did bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel as Lorenzo (Friar Lawrence), the lovers’ sympathetic confidant, who in this version so helpfully ushers them to their mutual doom.