Young Lovers and a Hypocrite
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
You can hear the haste in Vincenzo Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues (1830), whose libretto is a maladroit rewrite of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (The Bard was horribly ill-served by most opera adaptations until Verdi set him right.) The musical patchwork is uneven, but those spinning melodies, which would make his fame and fortune a bit later in masterpieces La Sonnambula and Norma, poke through the pedestrian and bloom ever fresh.
Under maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo, Opera in the Heights does wonders with this bel canto opera rarity. He coaxes transparency from the chorus, the exemplary cast of principals, and the orchestra (the horn and clarinet solos from Debra Rathke and Patricia Carde were this side of heavenly). He brings fire to the "War, War" chants (shades of Norma's Druids), sizzles during the love duets, delivers a sterling Funeral Scene, and then heats up the pathos for the Tomb Scene. His passion for the score is apparent.
He carries that flame to the singers. In a throwback to earlier operas, Romeo is a pants role and sung by a mezzo. Sarah Heltzel makes a very handsome young man, ardent, sleek and handy with a rapier. Her rich, powerhouse voice travels high to low without strain and is equally supple, gracefully scaling those essential vocal arabesques of which the nineteen-century ear was so enamored. Throughout, she was never less than first-class.
While a few of her stratospheric high notes went fleetingly askew, soprano Camille Zamora, as Giulietta, was nearly as smooth. Her soprano is appealingly dark and agile, with heft behind it, and she's a talented actress. Giuietta's famous romanza, "O quante volte" (a take on "Romeo, wherefore art thou") which begins over haunting harp and horn accompaniment, was rhapsodic. Her voice melded beautifully with Heltzel's in their duets – with those patented Bellini harmonic thirds – and their Death Scene was terrifically evocative.
Sweet-singing tenor Lázaro Calderón brought his burnished silvery tone to Tebaldo, in love with Guilietta. He soared in the fiery confrontation with Romeo, which is brought to a poignant hush by Giuietta's funeral procession. It's a highpoint of the opera, emphasizing the chorus – another Bellini signpost – while Romeo, in counterpoint, exclaims his grief.
Bellini spins out melody as if he were weaving gold. Sung and conducted with passion, and directed by Carlos Conde, who adds some spicy girl-on-girl ardor for the two sopranos, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi may be rare in the opera house, but it's right at home at OH.
With gleeful rapier wit, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Moliere) tweaked the noses of the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and even those of the lower class. In Tartuffe (1664) he gives center stage to the ultimate hypocrite.
Presented by the Rice University Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, Tartuffe is a handsome affair: elegant harpsichord entr'acte music; a neoclassical room designed by Matthew Schlief in eggshell blue and yellow; sumptuous costumes by Macy Perrone, all shimmering brocades and velvets. The play looks rich.
The English adaptation is in rhyme, which takes our ears time to acclimate to the artifice. Moliere was famous for his rhyming alexandrine couplets, but when it's in French, it somehow sounds a lot more natural. A few of the actors don't quite get it, and some line readings thud like a recitation of Cat in the Hat.
Tartuffe is simple farce, uncomplicated in motive and unconcerned with intricacy of character. That's Tartuffe's power. The sting is in the archetypes. Except dotty Orgon (Qingyang Peng) and his dottier mother Madame Pernelle (Alice Rhoades), everyone knows what a phony Tartuffe (Jake LaViola) is. Even motor-mouth saucy maid Dorine (Susannah Eig) can't be fooled. That's how the play begins, wiwth everyone denouncing the fraud but powerless to stop his encroachment. As in the best commedia dell'arte, complications pile up quickly, culminating in a delicious seduction scene where Orgon hides under the table upon which wife Elmire (Hayley Jones), any moment, may be compromised. The flow is masterful, and the ride like a funhouse.
Tartuffe is superbly played by LaViola, whose youth, vigor and wry glint seem just right to lust after the purring Elmire of Jones, who plays wise wife as if she were Maggie Le Chat. Peng gives obtuse Orgon a lovely unfazed quality, like he's been hit over the head with a copper sauce pan. Travis Hoyt and Tasneem Islam, who has the most expressive eyes, turn young lovers Valere and Mariane into petulant children, and their reconciliation scene is roughly manhandled with unnecessary shouting. Fortunately, Eig's wise-ass Dorine is there to smooth the waters. In the subsidiary role of Monsieur Loyal, bearer of more bad news for Orgon, Corey Palermo arrives fresh from Moliere's pen: officious, pompous, fey. It's a wonderful turn, quirky and smart.
For all his barbed disrespect, Moliere turned comedy respectable. Tartuffe needs revisiting every now and then to remind us of our own foibles. Rice's version, under director Samuel Sparks, is good for the eyes and the soul.
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