On Wednesday evening, Oct 3,  the San Francisco Opera presented Bellini’s infrequently performed I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (misspelled in the program – they left out the d – though I have often seen this spelling used). This is the second time the opera has been mounted by the company – it has yet to reach the Met. The opera’s most important role is given to the mezzo-soprano who sings Romeo – Joyce DiDonato. But the success of this production was due to the sensational performance of the young American soprano Nicole Cabell who portrayed Giuletta in her SFO debut. The story is taken from a source remote from Shakespeare’s version. In fact, other than the names of a few characters and that the lovers die at the end there’s nothing that resembles the Bard’s much more famous depiction of the Veronese pair. First Ms Cabell. While many of the singers did not project their voices well, Cabell could easily be heard from the softest note to the most forceful. And what was heard was a rich lyric soprano that handles Bellini’s luscious lines with beauty, ease, and emotion. Cabell was even more impressive than when I heard her a few months ago as Léïla in Santa Fe’s production of  The Pearl Fishers. She looks and acts as well as she sings. Director Vincent Boussard (also making his SFO debut) has her sing with her back to the audience, stand on one foot for a long time, sing ‘Oh! quante volte’ on top of a sink after she stopped standing on one foot, walk like she was on a high wire, and hold a pose for about 10 minutes. She did all of this without mishap while singing gloriously. Her career is not far enough along for her to refuse the nitwit demands of a French director. Her first act duet with Romeo was exquisite especially in its a capella portions. She is emerging as a major talent and was the reason this production was a success.

Joyce DiDonato is an acknowledged master of this style of singing – bel canto. But while all the notes were there, her tone was shrill and lacked the richness that Romeo requires. Her acting was characterized by a lot of leaning over and half lunges that seemed odd rather than ardent. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu has a light lyric tenor that brightens and increases in size at its top . He has already sung at the Met. This appearance as Tebaldo was his SFO debut.

Eric Owens was very impressive in his appearances as Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring Cycle. As Capellio, Juliet’s father, his sound was woolly and not easily heard. Ao Li, a native of China and a second year Adler Fellow, has a pleasant baritone that has real promise  He sang the role of the ditzy Lorenzo; a doctor in this version rather than a clergyman. Ricardo Frizza conducted with feeling and sensitivity realizing that the orchestra is a junior partner to the singers in this opera. It has an overture, but nothing special happens during the several minutes it takes to perform it.

As mentioned, Vincent Boussard was the director. Most of his bad ideas seemed aimed at  Ms Cabell. Otherwise, the action was conventional. Vincent Lemaire designed the sets which were mostly empty spaces and the solitary sink on which Cabell had to perch  There were bleachers in the second act – the kind that you might see at a Little League Baseball game. The first scene contained 28 saddles and stirrups hanging from the ceiling – seven columns of four. In the second act the Capulets arrived carrying the saddles.

Ms Cabell performed the entire piece in déshabille. This contrasted nicely to the multicolored outfits, designed by Christian Lacroix, that the non-singing women were decked out in. The  men, on both sides of the animating dispute, wore dark top hats and equally somber suits; some of the hats were taller than others. Even one member of the audience wore a matching top hat. The whole effect made renaissance Verona look like the Paris of  Les Miz.

I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, good as it is, is not as good as Bellini’s best – ie, Norma, Puritani, Sonnambula, etc. The ending is particularly weak. Here’s a spot where Bellini’s unequaled melodic gift abandoned him. Giulietta just dies seemingly from sympathy with Romeo’s plight. Doubtless an autopsy would reveal no cause of death. The whole thing ends as if Bellini was in a hurry to get the opera to the stage. But no matter, as long as Ms Cabell was singing all was well.