Being my first ever dress rehearsal I wasn't sure of what to expect – seeing the orchestra in their everyday street clothes was definitely something I'd never seen before! The constant sound of photographers taking innumerable photographs throughout the performance wasn't something I expected, but curiously as I knew that things would be a bit different on the day they didn't at all bother me. But some things never change and I was treated to a mid-scene change interval battle between an aggressive bottle-wielding grandmother who tried to dislocate a woman's shoulder who was using a mobile phone to text during the performance. Both were in the wrong, but it was quite amusing to see the argument – the younger woman was driven to anger due to the fact that she was a violinist and it's not the greatest thing to do to hit someone on the arm if they earn their living from holding a violin with it. But on to the music!
In the slim programme there was a note reminding people that this was only a dress rehearsal and not a performance – all I can say is that I can't imagine how a performance could be any better than Friday's dress rehearsal. From the opening overture to the closing notes of the final scene my eyes and ears never left the stage. The chorus was in particularly good voice and they certainly filled the house with some muscular singing (although it was noted on the programme notes that extra singers had been drafted in – the ROH chorus can be "unpredictable" on times). They were quickly followed by the triumvirate of Lorenzo (Giovanni Battista Parodi), Capellio (Eric Owens) and Tebaldo (Dario Schmunk). I'll keep my thoughts to myself as to Schmunk's performance as it was only a dress rehearsal and I suspect he may have been saving himself for the performances to come, but Parodi, and especially Owens sang with great clarity and control. To be fair, I think Owens would have made an excellent Capellio on the recent DG Capuleti. All were given great foundations by the conductor Mark Elder and the orchestra who had definitely worked hard to allow the singers to be heard while not losing any of the life and verve in the score.
But I Capuleti's success depends not on the male leads, but more on the female singers and in Anna & Elina I doubt you'll ever find a better pairing. Elina's first notes were sumptuous, and left you in no doubt as to the quality of her voice. What struck me most (apart from her richness of tone) was the "volume" of her voice – the biggest of any of the singers on stage, without her losing any characteristics of her voice. Before this performance I had been a big fan of Magdalena Kozena (and still am) but Elina is now my top mezzo. She received the biggest cheer of the day, and as much as I am a far bigger fan of Anna I have to admit that she gave a magnificent performance. Superb! Or as I shouted – "Brava!"
While Elina had the bigger voice (by a small margin) when Anna sang I was treated to several "shivers down my back", which is one of my markers of a great performance. Up until now I have been treated to hearing very good sopranos who can hold their performance together, but Anna is simply in a different league. When she started to sing my first thought was – she sounds like she does on CD – which is a pretty idiotic statement to make. But you'd be surprised how many singers / actors / bands I've seen that have failed to live up to my expectations. You would think that after watching her performances on DVD that I would be aware of how great an actress she is, but I wasn't prepared for was how much she allowed the role to play her, and not her the role. Even from my eye squinting vantage point in the amphitheatre I was captured by her acting skills – she really does make you "feel" for Giulietta, which given the "lightweight" nature of the opera is some achievement. Getting back to her voice, I was struck at how many different "Anna's" there are. While some singers have a comfort zone they rarely travel outside of she has a wonderful breadth of sounds – and she used these sounds to great effect, allowing the tumult of the character to be presented on stage. You want powerful singing? She has it. Delicate? No problem. Joyful? Again no problem. And as I'm writing this to you both now I'm beginning to understand that it's precisely this ability to change the "appearance" of her voice is what makes her such a great singer. Of course she has a wonderful richness to her voice, but she doesn't allow herself to live off that richness on stage – she explores the vocal life of a character in a way that lesser singers would be afraid to do. When she did let the full force of her voice to come to the fore she was on a par with Garanca, but this happened only once in my mind and is what marked her out to me as giving an astute performance because she played the role of Giulietta and not of Anna Netrebko International Soprano. She was joyfully free of any of the egotism that I've seen with many performers, and she was willing to give other performers their limelight. That to me is the sign of a truly instinctive performer. I think the role of Giulietta is far better for her voice than her recent Lucia – Bellini allows her to sing more freely than Donizetti and this plays to her strengths. She sounded far more comfortable in her singing than she did at the Met – I think this is probably a natural effect of her beginning to lose her "rustiness" after her maternity break, but even so I would like to see Lucia scratched from her future engagements as her voice is better suited to more direct singing rather than hoping around like a bird on a telephone wire, which I admit isn't my favoured type of singing. Apologies for the lack of technical insight, but my musical knowledge is governed by my instincts and not by any academic learning.
The highlight of the performance? Among so many highlights (I can't remember the last time when I was treated to such spellbinding arias from both lead singers) the love duet between Romeo and Giulietta at the end of Act I Scene II was simply beautiful. For me, there was something magical in the silence that followed the ending of the duet – everyone – and I mean everyone in the house (including the photographers and their cameras) – were silent. We were definitely under their spell, and it was with great reluctance that I joined in the applause as I would have loved to have savoured the performance a little longer than I did. Afterwards, as I was sitting on the steps of the National Gallery and looking at the fountains in Trafalgar Square it was all I could hear in my head. And it's all I can hear today!
If there is one aspect I'd like to change about the production it would be in ensuring that the scenery stays in place – I never thought I'd see the day when Anna would push a ten-metre granite column back a few feet! But, as I reminded myself it was only a dress rehearsal…but on a less picky note the production itself was very understated, with the Pier Luigi Pizzi recognising that I Capuleti is an opera that demands not so much from the eye but from the ear. Having said that the costumes worn by the chorus with red capes designating the Capuleti and blue the Montecchi added a glorius dash of colour that was even more striking during a well orchestrated fight sequence.
I can now hardly wait to see a "proper" performance next week!
Hopefully BBC Radio 3 will be recording a performance – it will probably be an April performance as according to Opera magazine there is no scheduled broadcast in March for I Capuleti.
Many, many thanks to Rhodri for his fantastic report !!! You're the best !! =))