Blog Archives

Productions even sinks can’t save

Operaramblings has recently at the time of my rant hit on a subject that still (STILL) gets my goat. Naturally I ran to my 6 many months old ranty draft and stroked it a few times. Then I thought I should vent my anger (for it makes me foamy (oh, so foamy…)).

Eagerly awaited by yours truly, the 2011/2012 Munich I Capuleti e i Montecchi turned out to be a spectacularly inept production1. There are only two good things about it: Bellini’s music and Romeo. The rest is like a wisdom tooth ache: dull, painful and the mere thought of it almost as uncomfortable as the thing itself. Shame on you, Bayerische Staatstoper!

To those few who don’t know, in 2012 this production had VK as Romeo, Anna Netrebko as Giulietta and some guys in the other roles, plus Maestro Yves Abel running the shoddy ship into every rock on the way. To add insult to injury, midway through the run AN decided she’d had enough of her sink and unceremoniously boarded the nearest lifeboat. Bayerische shipped the 2011 Giulietta (Nakamura) back and refunded 1/2 of the (ridiculously high) ticket price to the angry Netrebkites.

Back in 2012 I watched the livestream (on mum’s ancient desktop) and then I re-watched it on youtube on a brand new laptop, which mum thoughtfully bought the day after. I read others’ comments on it, some of which made for very good reading though they appeared to be about something else than what I had seen. I didn’t make an effort to snap it before the cerbers at Bayerische mauled it off youtube. I eventually acquired it in hopes that time brings perspective. I’ve watched it a couple more times and my disappointment has turned to anger. There are just too many things that irk me:

Giulietta – NO. NO. NO. NO. Also: no.
fussy/inept costumes – epitome of fashion hype: unflattering and completely impractical
harsh lighting that made them all look like zombies – it’s set in a morgue, then
all-over-the-shop choir – perhaps coached by some fashion hanger-on
incomprehensible staging:

  • overly precious ending – just look behind you already, Romeo!
  • saddlesobviously!
  • sink – the sink is to regie what stairs are to trad productions = a bold statement of lack of imagination; this is a
  • wedding party on bleachers – fashion shoot on stairs, duh
  • reflective and uneven walls – the stage designer and the light designer meet after a successful double lobotomy

To be fair to the end, VK too seemed a day or two past the sell-by date. Major meh. It’s beyond annoying that posterity will be left with this video version of her Romeo, when she’s done such an exceptional job with this role over the years. At the time I was very upset that I couldn’t see it live but in the very long run it looks like I saved myself further frustration not to mention money and fuss.


  1. I don’t truly like any Capuleti production I’ve seen so far. Very frustrating. 

Revisiting the Bechdel test for opera

A while ago I put some of my favourite operas to this test, with various results. But on re-reading it today, an idea about how perception complicates matters came to me. Let’s first see what happened when I Capuleti e i Montecchi’s turn came:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.

It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).

Right, it fails spectacularly, in grand Victorian tradition, which is unsurprising. But there is one interesting thing about it: namely that Romeo is specifically written for a woman1. So in a sense, there are two women in it and they do talk about quite a few things. They are also trying – with tragic results – to get away from “patriarchy”. It’s almost like a classic lesbian twist, which needs to end badly for all involved. I think nowadays that subtext is there even though it wasn’t always so.

The case of Der Rosenkavalier is somewhat similar, for the same reason. Octavian is supposed to be sung/played by a woman. You know that point where Octavian says “the Field Marshall is hunting in the Croatian forest and I’m here… hunting for… hehe…” – that always makes me imagine the Field Marshall as this big, forged in the heat of battle chap with large, black whiskers; and his wife prefers this giggly kid after all. I know it’s Strauss’s version of Le nozze but still2, the Field Marshall hunts for bears and boars for a reason. And we know they’ve been married since she came out of the convent – which was probably around age 16-18 – and they still don’t have any children. Maybe they couldn’t conceive but maybe she’s just not into black-whiskered boar hunters. Maybe he isn’t into women. Hofmannsthal was gay after all, can’t put this thought beyond him.

How Mozart/Bellini/Strauss intended it is one thing but how we see it today is almost always different.


  1. I know there are musical reasons why that is so – Bellini wanted the lovers to sound more alike so as to make a strong contrast to those who are opposing them. 
  2. I guess we could discuss Le nozze as well. Beaumarchais himself wanted Cherubino to be played by a girl and he still went on with the third part of the trilogy. You could say the kid had to be very pretty, that’s the point. You could also say, with the third part in place you know he meant for the Countess and Cherubino to really be getting it on, no ifs and buts there. What I’m getting at is you can’t get away from subtext, it’s just not possible, the way we think these days. 

Does your favourite opera pass the Bechdel test?

I was browsing idly after much Christmas food and found this clever post. So, to remind you, gentle reader, the Bechdel test quantifies the feminism of films. Let’s apply it to dehggi’s favourite opera:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Vitellia and Servilia, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about Tito choosing a wife and about saving Sesto, fail.

Two outta three ain’t bad, eh? Feminism isn’t the first thing I think about when it comes to Tito yet the women in the libretto are not damsels in distress; they are quite able to negotiate getting out of whatever messes they get into.

Now let’s put Alcina to the test:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; more than 2, woohoo! Alcina, Morgana and Bradamante, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: it turns interesting when Morgana gets sweet on Bradamante, check.

Alcina is a good example of how women in Baroque opera are more interesting than their later sisters. If the Bradamante-Morgana thing is not quite two women having a conversation about astrophysics or practical ways of eradicating famine in poor countries at least it’s not two women fighting over a man. You could say Morgana thinks she’s talking to a (goodlooking) man, does this count? I think it does, because 1) gender ambiguity = yes, 2) Bradamante is still a woman and though her actions are typical woman fighting for her man she is not wringing her hands expecting others (men) to fix everything.

Alcina famously does not need men to save her. It’s when she starts thinking she needs a man that things turn pearshaped. Cautionary tale, eh.

Stepping into the 19th century with I Capuleti e i Montecchi:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.

It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).

How about 17th century’s L’incoronazione di Poppea:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; way more than 2: Poppea, Ottavia, Arnalta (Nutrice is just Nutrice), Drusilla, goddesses, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about the weakness of humans, attaining power, losing power, getting old, check.

If a Baroque opera is named after a woman chances are good she’s a strong one. Also in early Baroque you get at least 2-3 goddesses who talk about ethics, so the Prologue already passes the test.

I am afraid to put Die Frau ohne Schatten to this test 😀 But let’s try Der Rosenkavalier:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Die Marschallin (Marie Therese), Sophie, Annina, Marianne, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: not really, do they? Maybe Die Marschallin and Mariandel do 😉 fail

Can’t have everything, can we?

I Capuleti e i Montecchi – Act II (Horne, 1977)

Recently I noticed some unexpected interest in my post on Act I of Horne’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which caused me to feel bad about never finishing talking about that boot. At long last, here is Act II.

  • Romeo: Marilyn Horne capmonte
  • Giulietta: Linda Zoghby
  • Capellio: Nicola Zaccaria
  • Tebaldo: Antonio Savastano
  • Lorenzo: John West

Conductor: Nicola Rescigno | Dallas Symphony Orchestra, 21/11/1977

o, tosco fatal…

The don’t bother with it I Capuleti (Abbado, 1966)

  • Romeo: Jaume Aragall
  • Giulietta: Margherita Rinaldi
  • Tebaldo: Luciano Pavarotti
  • Capellio: Nicola Zaccaria
  • Lorenzo: Walter Monachesi

Conductor: Claudio Abbado | Residentie Orchestra, Den Haag (1966) | Coro del Teatro comunale di Bologna, 30 June 1966

Wow. This was dire. I couldn’t make it past a ghastly rendition of the Ah, mia Giulietta!… Si, fuggire! duet which I love dearly. You couldn’t find a more bored-sounding Romeo or a more sugary Giulietta. Dear god, what was everybody thinking, especially the public who actually clapped generously…? Delete bin.

Aragall’s Se Romeo… La tremenda ultrice spada

  • Romeo: Jaume Aragall
  • Giulietta: Margherita Rinaldi
  • Tebaldo: Luciano Pavarotti
  • Capellio: Nicola Zaccaria
  • Lorenzo: Walter Monachesi

Conductor: Claudio Abbado | Residentie Orchestra, Den Haag | Coro del Teatro comunale di Bologna, 30 June 1966

Curiosity got the better of me and I finally attempted to listen to this recording boasting a male Romeo. Sacrilege, I know, but I really wanted to see how it would sound. Two minor things first: Pavarotti is a pretty neat Tebaldo1 and Nicola Zaccaria fares better as Capellio2 than as Argirio, before I get to the matter at hand: Aragall’s Romeo.

Aragall certainly has a beautiful, soulful voice, I’ll give him that; he might be quite pleasant in other roles. He fares nicely during the Se Romeo…3 bit but err, where is the fire, man – ma su voi vi cada il SANGUE!the fire, during La tremenda ultrice spada? Yo! You’re supposed to be vicious, foaming at the mouth with fury and hatred and he’s sort of regal, waltzy even and taking his time (or was that Abbado? Whoever it was, bloody bad decision4 – there goes the momentum…) and really melancholic. No wonder Romeo accomplishes fuckall by the end of the opera. Holy cow, that cabaletta came off so bad I had to cleanse my ears with the proper rendition. See what I mean? No fuckin’ comparison. But because I’m still curious – I like this opera too much – and because I want to hear Rinaldi’s Giulietta, I will get around to listening to it in entirety at some point, when I’m doing housework or something.


  1. He must’ve been at the very beginning of his career, can’t imagine him singing such a thankless role ever again. Whilst we’re on Pav, why not have him as Romeo, he seems better suited to it if we’re to have a tenor sing it. 
  2. Although not a great Capellio, but that’s another thankless role that won’t get people buying CDs. 
  3. If you like your Romeo overly sentimental and gentle as a sleepy teddy-bear. 
  4. Must’ve been Abbado, E serbata a questo acciaro gets the same treatment but there it makes sense. 

I Capuleti e i Montecchi – Act I (Horne, 1977)

The same year she sang Tancredi in Rome, mezzo extraordinaire Marilyn Horne sang Romeo1 in Bellini’s take on Romeo and Juliet. Horne sings both these male heroes in a similar manner2 and that manner benefits Tancredi rather than Romeo. Horne sounds like a trumpet throughout this recording, which is not exactly how I see this young, hopelessly romantic chap.

  • Romeo: Marilyn Horne capmonte
  • Giulietta: Linda Zoghby
  • Capellio: Nicola Zaccaria
  • Tebaldo: Antonio Savastano
  • Lorenzo: John West

Conductor: Nicola Rescigno | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | 21/11/1977

The sound of this (audience) recording is quite poor but given it was 1977 I’m not going to be overly critical. It’s sometimes better to have something than nothing at all.

Capuleti is one of my top favourite operas. Considering the grand spectacle opera can be, I’m fond of smaller scale works with only a few characters and a very clear narrative. Romani did away with all the extraneous plots and focused only on what Romeo and Giulietta were up to that fateful day.

Review ahoy!