Berkeley Chamber Opera Shows What Great Things a Small Opera Company Can Do

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday December 12, 2016 - 12:48:00 PM

In two performances, Friday, December 9, and Sunday, December 11, at Berkeley Hillside Club, Berkeley Chamber Opera did itself proud, offering first-rate singers and musicians in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues). Featuring two outstanding principals, mezzo-soprano Liliane Cromer as Romeo, and soprano Eliza O’Malley as Juliet (Giulietta in Italian), this, of course, is the Romeo and Juliet story, loosely based on Shakespeare’s great play. Set in Verona during the 13th century, a time of strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines, two warring political factions, this opera pits two families, the Capulets, who are Guelphs, against the Montagues, who are Ghibellines. Juliet, a Capulet, is secretly in love with Romeo, a Montague. But Romeo has had to flee Verona in exile after having killed the brother of Juliet in battle.  

After a brief, urgent prelude the opera opens with a chorus of Capulet followers who have gathered at dawn at the Capulet palazzo. Tybald (Tebaldo in Italian), sung here by tenor Patrick Hagen, tells everyone that Verona is threatened again by the Ghibellines. Young Romeo is leading an army set to invade Verona. However, Romeo is also sending an envoy to offer terms of peace. Lorenzo, sung here by bass-baritone Don Hoffman, is a friend to both the Capulets and the Montagues, and he advises the Capulets to give serious consideration to this envoy’s offer of peace. Capellio, Juliet’s father, sung here by bass-baritone Paul Cheak, declares that his son’s death at the hands of Romeo must be avenged, and Tebaldo vows to wreak vengeance on Romeo. Capellio offers his daughter Juliet’s hand in marriage to Tebaldo and orders preparations for a wedding this very evening. Lorenzo, knowing of Juliet’s secret love for Romeo, begs for more time because Juliet is ill. Lorenzo’s plea, elegantly sung by Don Hoffman, is summarily rejected. 

Romeo now enters incognito, disguised as the Montague’s envoy. Sung by French-born Liliane Cromer in a trousers-role, Romeo offers terms of peace. Let Guelphs and Ghibellines share Verona, he offers, and bring their feud to an end with the marriage of Romeo and Giulietta. Liliane Cromer, who was a late replacement for Elizabeth Baker, who was forced to withdraw because of illness, turned out to be a phenomenal discovery. Though she has sung often with Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola, and occasionally with Verismo Opera, I had never heard her before. She possesses a full-voiced, plangent mezzo-soprano, with a timbre not unlike that of Joyce DiDonato, who recently gave a stunning concert in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Liliane Cromer was utterly convincing as an ardent Romeo. The offer of peace, however, is rejected by Capellio, who informs the envoy that Giulietta will wed Tebaldo this very evening. Without revealing his true identity, Romeo promises that Guelph blood will flow in the ensuing battle. 

Act I, Scene 2 takes place in Giulietta’s apartments, where she learns of her father’s decision to give her hand in marriage to Tebaldo. A lovely viola solo played by Ellen Ruth Rose serves as prelude to Giulietta’s first aria in which she laments her plight and longs for the return of Romeo in “O quante volte.” As Giulietta, soprano Eliza O’Malley was at the top of her game, offering elegant bel canto phrasing with a shimmering, silvery sheen. It is truly rewarding to see Eliza O’Malley come into her own with the Berkeley Chamber Opera, a company she founded in 2012, where she serves as Artistic Director and can exercise quality control in all areas, something she had not been able to do previously in her long stint singing with Verismo Opera. The results, as this production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi attests, are quite extraordinary. For this production, Ms O’Malley not only cast excellent singers, she also chose veteran Jonathan Khuner to conduct the 10-piece chamber orchestra. Directing chores were given to Ellen St. Thomas, and costumes were designed by Barbara Lim. In short, Eliza O’Malley assembled a high-quality team of colleagues who demonstrated a high degree of artistic teamwork in bringing this opera to the public.  

Lorenzo secretly brings Romeo to Giulietta’s apartment, and the lovers embrace each other in joy. When Romeo begs her to elope with him, however, Giulietta refuses, declaring that she is ready to die for Romeo but cannot betray the trust and honor of her father. Romeo, abashed at Giulietta’s refusal, flees in anguish. Act I, Scene 3 is set in the courtyard of the Capulet’s palazzo, where the imminent wedding of Giulietta and Tebaldo is celebrated. Romeo enters in disguise and tells Lorenzo he has a thousand armed men ready to attack. Romeo has come to plead once again for Giulietta to escape with him. Lorenzo advises against further bloodshed. When Giulietta appears in her wedding dress, Romeo urges her to flee with him. This time, she seems to agree. But before they can leave, Capellio and Tebaldo arrive to confront Romeo, and a quintet full of mixed emotions ensues. As the scene ends, Romeo escapes alone, without Giulietta. 

In Act II, Scene 1, Lorenzo tells Giulietta that Romeo is safe. He tells her of his plan. He has prepared a potion that will put her to sleep. Everyone will believe that she has died. They will place her in the family tomb. Lorenzo will secretly conduct Romeo to her side. In a lovely aria, Giulietta denies fear of death but doubts the potion’s efficacy. She only drinks it when she hears her father approaching. Having drunk the potion, Giulietta pleads for pity from her father, who remains obdurate.  

In Act II, Scene 2, a beautiful clarinet solo played here by Nora Adachi serves as prelude to Romeo’s uncertainty over Lorenzo, who has failed to meet Romeo as planned. Tebaldo appears, and Romeo and Tebaldo engage in a martial duet in which they each vow to kill the other. As they begin to do battle, a funeral dirge interrupts them. They are each aghast to learn of Giulietta’s apparent death. Tebaldo exits, leaving Romeo alone in his grief. 

The opera’s final scene takes place in the Capulets’ family tomb, where Giulietta has been laid to rest, covered only by a shroud. Romeo arrives to mourn his beloved. Though he believes her to be dead, he speaks to her. In the aria “Deh! tu bell’alma,” Romeo begs Giulietta to allow him to join her in heaven. He drinks poison from a flask he carries with him. He is already beginning to feel weak from the poison when Giulietta awakens from her potion-induced sleep. The lovers share a brief but heartfelt duet before Romeo dies in Giulietta’s arms. Overcome with grief, she stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger. Capellio rushes in only to find his daughter dead. “Killed by whom?” he asks. Even his followers cry, “By you, pitiless man!” as the curtain falls.  

This production of I Capuleti e I Montecchi was an unqualified success. In every aspect – singing, orchestra, staging, costumes, acting – this production demonstrated what great things a small opera company can do. Let us hope we can expect many more wonderful productions from Berkeley Chamber Opera.