New: Preview:
Bellini’s Romeo & Juliet Opera

Previewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday December 01, 2016 - 09:07:00 PM

On Friday, December 9 at 7:00 pm and Sunday, December 11 at 2:00 pm, Berkeley Chamber Opera will present Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi/The Capulets and the Montagues, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The announced cast features two outstanding singers in the lead roles – Juliet (Giulietta in Italian) will be sung by soprano Eliza O’Malley, whose superb interpretation of the difficult role of Cherubini’s Medea I reviewed on May 12, 2014 in this paper; while the role of Romeo will be sung by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Baker, whose stunning debut recital I reviewed in these pages on October 24, 2016. Tybald/Tebaldo will be sung by tenor Patrick Hagen, Lorenzo by baritone Don Hoffman, and Capellio (Juliet’s father) by bass Paul Cheak. Jonathan Khuner will conduct the chamber orchestra, and I Capuleti e I Montecchi will be staged by director Ellen St. Thomas, with veteran diva Olivia Stapp serving as Artistic Advisor. Performances will be at Berkeley Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street, an ideally intimate space with excellent acoustics.  

Berkeley Chamber Opera was founded in 2012 by Eliza O’Malley to offer live opera performances in intimate venues featuring excellent Bay Area singers and musicians at affordable prices. This is a laudable venture. General Admission tickets cost $30, $20 for students & seniors. Children under 12 get in free. Thus far, Berkeley Chamber Opera has presented three Mozart operas – Così fan tutte in 2012, and Le Nozze di Figaro and La Clemenza di Tito in 2015.  

Opera lovers familiar with Bellini’s operas such as Norma, I Puritani, and La Sonnambula, will know that this composer specialized in writing extended melodic lines requiring great breath control from his singers. With this mind, I asked Eliza O’Malley if she had previously sung any Bellini roles, and if so did Bellini’s long lyric lines present any problems for singers not accustomed to these breath control demands. Eliza O’Malley replied, “I sang Norma a few years ago. The interesting thing about Bellini is that each individual long lyric line presents no technical difficulties for me, but the cumulative effect of many such lines in the roles of Norma and Giulietta makes it difficult to pace. In concerts I sang Norma’s part in the famous duet with Adalgesa, “Mira o Norma,” with no problem; but singing it in the context of the whole opera created problems of endurance. In the case of Giulietta, the role is not inordinately long, unlike that of Norma, but Giulietta has three scenes in a row with some of this opera’s most difficult music coming last. My strategy for managing breath control in these difficult passages is to pay attention to the harmonic changes and other details. Then the breath flows easily and efficiently. Also, exercise is key to being in shape to tackle long vocal phrases.” 

LATE CAST CHANGE: Due to illness Elizabeth Baker has had to withdraw from this production of I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Singing the role of Romeo for both performances will be French-born mezzo-soprano Liliane Cromer, of Bay Shore Lyric Opera, who has sung many featured roles in the USA and abroad.