Bitter disappointment! The opera contained no ball at the Capulets’, no Mercutio, no garrulous nurse, no grave and tranquil hermit, no balcony scene….a squandered opportunity. Yet this wretched libretto carved out of Shakespeare’s great play is the work of a distinguished poet, Felice Romano, such is the dominance of mediocre ideas and shoddy traditions on the Italian operatic stage.

Hector Berlioz

Berlioz was perhaps not the best placed commentator on Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of 1831, given his own equally if differently quirky take on the lovers of Verona written at the end of the decade; but it is his view that has prevailed in discussions of this rarely revived or recorded work. This piece is generally taken to be a case where the plot is far too ruthlessly stripped down and simplified, not an accusation usually levelled against opera composers. There is said to be little of the ‘infinite variety’ of Shakespeare’s original, often considered best recaptured in Prokofiev’s ballet music or in West Side Story rather than in any work of the opera canon.

This is an unfair criticism because apart from anything else Bellini and his librettist choose to go back beyond Shakespeare to his sources, where the focus is much more narrowly on the two lovers and their reactions to their predicament, rather than on the community-wide conflict of Verona. In fact the scope for inward reflection thus enabled is the source of the real charms of this piece, quite apart from being the inspiration behind the finest of the arias and duets for the two principals.

Pop-Up Opera have made their reputation in comedy to date, and one can see why – comic operas have an indestructible quality to them that transfers more readily from venue to venue. This is their first attempt at a specific tragic theme where there is only occasional incidental humour, and they are to be commended for broadening their range. There are many things to like about this performance, but also a few factors that militate against unqualified success.

The venue on this occasion was a basement space under a restaurant in Mayfair, very much a concrete bunker of modest proportions rather than the larger or more sonically absorbent spaces in which I have seen the company perform previously. There were advantages and disadvantages to this choice. Firstly the stripped-down venue set the tone of the production which was very much in a Mafioso-style reminiscent of Tarantino: dark suits and glasses and a bleak, tense atmosphere in which the prospect of interrogation and the threat of violence were never far away. This suited the subdued tone of the music which plays on the fears and anxieties of the characters constantly. Also from a practical point of view it allowed the audience a view of the action on all four sides, and a clear sighting of the excellent projected captions and dialogue on the walls of the space.

However, the concrete walls and limited space left nowhere for the sound to go, and for much of the evening the singers were simply too loud. No doubt in other spaces on the tour this will be far less of a problem, but here the relentless volume became tiresome after a while especially when there are so many moments of quiet reflection in the score. While it seems hard to ask professional singers to produce a performance sound in mezza voce, more allowance needed to be made for the constraints of the location. Also the temporary strip lighting that was requirred to compensate for the lack of natural light was very bright and harsh in that close proximity, to the extent that I had to look away at times or shut my eyes. These are issues that can certainly be fixed, and they do not majorly undermine what is generally a tough-minded and well thought-through production.

The opera has been stripped down further to five singers, but the loss of the chorus is not a major issue. There is, as usual, excellently idiomatic keyboard accompaniment from Berrak Dyer throughout, without even a page-turner to assist her. I did not miss the orchestral writing, except in the case of some instrumental solos, and its absence allowed the audience to concentrate on the often intricate part-writing for the voices and the great gift Bellini had for matching complex words sympathetically to long-breathed melodies. The end of Act One in particular shone out for the way in which it crystallised the challenges and dilemmas facing all the characters.

In this scenario Romeo and Juliet have already begun their romance with the assistance of Lorenzo, a consigliere within the Capulet clan. Romeo is in exile after killing Capulet’s son. Giulietta is due to be married to Tebaldo (Tybalt) and Romeo returns to prevent this outcome. Giulietta takes the familiar potion as a way of escaping the marriage ceremony, and after a fight with Tebaldo Romeo finds his way to the tomb for a reunion with his lover that follows its familiar course, but not before a stunning sequence of duets, which show Bellini at the top of his game in generating memorable tunes from the initial material of the recitative.

Apart from the issue of volume control, the singing and acting were at the uniformly high standard one expects from this ensemble. James Hurley’s direction kept the action moving and made full use of the space, with an ample scattering of props to compensate for the lack of specific scenery. The two principals were very well matched and fully up to the technical challenges of this demanding music. There are two casts, and on the press night the lead roles were taken by Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett. As Romeo, Mcintosh acted very strongly and dynamically: defiant in the face of the Capulets and well to the pitch of the plangent despair that dominates Romeo’s part in the later sections. The role of Giulietta has some testing coloratura which Privett negotiated confidently, and she graphically portrayed the conflict in her character between duty to family and desire to follow her own desires.

The characters of Capellio (Capulet), Tebaldo and Lorenzo are drawn in lesser detail but Andrew Tipple, Cliff Zammitt-Stevens and Matthew Palmer all sang and acted confidently and made the most of the opportunities given to them.

The company deserve great credit for giving audiences the chance to hear this unjustly neglected opera, and deserve a successful tour so long as they can adjust the scale and presentation of the piece to the later venues with a little more precision.

Three stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…