Director Harry Fehr talks about his production of Bellini’s opera
When Stephen Barlow first approached me, asking if I would like to direct I Capuleti e i Montecchi for the 2016 festival, the first question I asked myself was: why now? The story of Romeo and Juliet (or Romeo e Giulietta, Roméo et Juliette, Romeo und Julia, etc, etc) must be one of the very best known in Western literature, so why did it need telling yet again in 2016?
The immediate answer, of course, is that this year is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and opera companies around the world are celebrating his life with productions based on or inspired by his plays. But, while a wonderful excuse to produce some of the greatest works in the operatic repertoire (such as Falstaff, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), no opera company is a museum. This didn’t seem enough to answer why now?
I investigated the performance history of the piece. While the play may be one of Shakespeare’s most performed, Bellini’s I Capuleti remains a relative rarity on British stages. Opera North staged it in 2008, but the Royal Opera last created a new production of the work in 1984 (which had its last outing in 2009) and in recent times ENO have performed it only in concert. Bellini is the least performed of the three primary bel canto composers of the early 19th Century and while his output was far smaller than that of Rossini or Donizetti, none of his works has achieved the popularity of, say, a Barbiere di Siviglia or a L’elisir d’amore (Norma seems to be having another ‘moment’ right now, but is unlikely ever to gain the popularity of those immortal comedies). I am of the opinion that novelty and rarity can be fine reasons for producing certain operas, particularly those which shed light on a particular composer or era, but while an opera company is not a museum, nor is it an academic institution. The piece’s rarity value still doesn’t completely answer my question.
I reflected further: surely, if a piece is good, it is always worth doing. This is indisputably true, and I Capuleti is indisputably, at the very least, ‘good’. The libretto may lack the richness and vigour of Shakespeare, and we may balk at Juliet/ Giulietta’s reduction from a strong, dynamic protagonist to the powerless weeping damsel of 19th Century convention, but it is taught, cogent and psychologically credible. Furthermore, Bellini’s score reveals a real master of his idiom. The composer is famous, of course, for his superb melodic invention but, not really knowing the piece before I was asked to direct it, I was excited to discover how those melodies are put to the service of the drama. Scenes such as infiltration of the Capuleti headquarters by the Montecchi in the Act 1 finale generate real dramatic heat, and the final duet between Giulietta and the dying Romeo is desperate. But, again, the audience are not paying to see a concert. They are coming to see a staged narrative drama of a story the vast majority will, in essence, know. Why should they sit through that narrative yet again?
My job as a director is always to tell the story in the clearest way possible, while considering what in the piece speaks to a contemporary audience. My question of why? gradually became more specific: what themes, what incidents in the narrative mean that it still has the power to enthral us, and how can they best be presented?
A central difference between Shakespeare’s play and Felice Romani’s libretto is that the conflict between the two factions is not a mere family feud, but an all-out civil war. Romeo himself is no callow youth, but rather a hardened fighter, the leader, in fact, of the Montecchi faction. Consequently the conflict in which these two groups is engaged is ever present, pressing at the edge of events at all times. My designer, Yannis Thavoris, and I wanted to foreground this, and felt that drawing on the imagery of war from contemporary society would conjure useful connections in our audience’s imaginations. We also spent a long time thinking about what ‘Verona’ (the ostensible location of the opera) could be. It is a city which has great cultural and historical value to two tribes, and which has been fought over by them for many years. When looking for parallels which our audience would readily understand, the immediate example was Jerusalem, and Yannis and I spent time looking at imagery of that city, particularly today.
Yet, at the same time, Bellini created a highly specific sound world which is very much of its day. I’ve found that works by composers such as Handel and Mozart, while (of course) absolutely of the time in which they were written, can work well transferred wholesale into other time periods – for example, in the production of the latter’s La finta giardiniera which I directed at Buxton Festival in 2013. But I felt that such a precise relocation of I Capuleti into, for example, modern-day Jerusalem at the height of another intifada, would feel at odds with Bellini’s rhythms and textures. While the piece has much to tell us today, I wasn’t convinced that it would be best served in a specific modern context. I felt that some remnants of Bellini’s own world would be useful.
Consequently, Yannis and I have created an imagined world: one which uses some of the tropes of the contemporary Middle East, while also consciously bringing to mind the 1830s. Within that world, with its various associations, we hope to make clear a story of futile internecine war, the arrogance of men, and the transformative power of love.
Harry Fehr Capuleti Director