When working in a conventional art form such as opera, with its roots stubbornly planted in the past, it can be difficult to imagine it shining a new light on the world. Many young audience members associate it with posh noise and unbearably dated acting. But you just have to look a little closer into the underworld of opera to see that it actually lends itself to a creative freedom beyond normal performance, despite its reputation of being old school by 200 years.
Pop-Up Opera dedicates itself to staging opera in diverse and quirky venues, thus proving that the art form wants to break out of its former formal box. Their performances are adapted to each new space on tour, which makes it refreshing, using whatever means available to tell the story. Popping up at the hip central London restaurant Carousel with their modern dress I Capuleti E I Montecchi, they explore Bellini’s delicate music and abandon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the story that actually inspired the world’s most famous romantic tragedy.
Bellini’s version only resembles Shakespeare’s in names and ending – in other ways it is perhaps more modern than the Bard’s. Romeo and Juliet are already having an affair as the music begins, despite their families fighting each other for the control of Verona. Capellio tries to marry off his daughter Giulietta to Tebaldo, a Capulet general, but Romeo and the Montagues interfere at the wedding ceremony and try to steal away Giulietta. Lorenzo, the lovers’ confidant, suggests the faking of Giulietta’s death, which as we know goes terribly wrong. Bellini’s score offers delicious lyrical arias as the tragedy unfolds, and despite it being played by just a pianist – the very talented musical director Berrak Dyer – we feel the emotional weight and range of the music. The musical director being a woman is also an absolute delight in this heavily male-dominated genre. The staging is cleverly minimalistic and inventive, with fluorescent lights and bulbs producing a cold yet hugely atmospheric environment for the lovers. I bow down to productions that turn very little into clear, imaginative worlds, and Pop-Up Opera certainly manages that. The staging overall is dynamic and creates a rich backstory for the music and its changes, though some of the feared conventional “operatic” acting could have been diluted.
The cast all have phenomenal voices and it’s great to see Pop-Up Opera supporting young emerging talent. The small cast all manage to make the drama come alive as well as the incredible score, though Alice Privett’s Giulietta leads the race by a mile. She masters her vocal with a skill that highlights the colours of the music. I find it most powerful when the volume is turned down a notch and the vulnerability of the music is explored, in which she excels beautifully. This is what’s missing in the production as a whole. All singers are talented, without a doubt, but as the space is so small and the acoustics so clear, the volume of the vocals is just overwhelming. At times it is even painful, something that could have been avoided if a greater variety in intensity had been explored.
It’s interesting to note that Bellini wrote Romeo for a mezzo soprano to emphasise the youthful innocence of the lovers – an idea that works brilliantly at times, but sometimes Flora McIntosh loses a little of his innocent charm with her cockiness. That said, McIntosh and Privett make a power-team that celebrates the impressive female voice.
It’s a shame the audience had so few young members – hopefully a new generation will open their eyes to the powerful and inventive work that Pop-Up Opera does.
I Capuleti E I Montecchi is on tour until 7 May. For more information and tickets, see the Pop Up Opera website. Photo: Richard Lakos