A pair of star-crossed lovers, a drinking potion that simulates death, and blood “senselessly shed” are elements Bellini’s opera shares with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But Bellini’s version of the Bard's drama was based on Italian, not English, sources, and the composer actually pieced together its score by using several of his arias he believed had been underappreciated. Under terrific time pressure, he completed this opera in a record six weeks for its 1830 première at Venice’s La Fenice where, despite its largely elegiac and wistful score, it met with tremendous success among Carnival-goers.

Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) © Monika Rittershaus
Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo)
© Monika Rittershaus

Arguably, the compendium of music and characters in Bellini's operas are as far from Shakespeare as Richard Wagner is from Miles Davis. Christof Loy’s Zurich production features an almost vacant, undecorated stage that makes an unusual case for the themes of cross-dressing and the time warp. Both theatrical devices underscore the sense of a search for identity and home that the two young lovers are looking to find in one another. But transgender was actually built into the score: Bellini cast a mezzo as his Giulietta, aware that even the most agile and gifted of tenors would have trouble with the demands of the role. Here, however, a commanding figure of “Companion/Death” also dons a silvery ballgown for a distinctively Breakfast at Tiffany’s look, and the lure of love across the sexes is a palpable undercurrent.

It’s a time warp, however, that frames this whole production: during the first orchestral prelude, a young girl in white twiddles her hair and eavesdrops at a large “door” that serves as a mark of her innocence. Some half dozen stage rotations later, but even before the opera proper begins, a lady in white – the “bride” Giulietta – is surrounded by corpses of fallen partygoers, men with fatal wounds who are slumped over in their chairs or sprawled out on the floor. It’s not a picture that bodes well. Strewn bodies’ reappear periodically through to the final vignette, suggesting that even to this day we are remiss in compliance to duty, law and honour.

In any case, shades of political confrontation and death pervade. Shakespeare’s endearing Nurse is pre-empted by the well-meaning “Lorenzo”, a Capuleti friend and doctor who enables Giulietta to meet her lover and supplies the potent potion. The enigmatic “Attendant” (Gieorgij Puchalski) is a tall and needle-thin dancer whose unmitigated, dark presence equates him with Death itself. Indeed, he can slip into “many skins” and gives a powerful, wired performance that affected the stage like the ripples of a stone thrown into water.

Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) © Monika Rittershaus
Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo)
© Monika Rittershaus

As head of the warring house of Capuleti, Alexei Botnarciuc gave superb voice to Giulietta’s father Capellio and, struggling over his rejection of his daughter’s choice, his acting was commendable. Tebaldo (Benjamin Bernheim), who loves Giulietta and is promised her as husband, took command of the stage with a volume that startled the whole Zurich house, and his strong physique was perfect for the role. Yet there was ambivalence around his character in the drama itself. He promises his rival Romeo that with “just one call from me, my men will come and finish you off,” but then both men fiddle around with a pistol for over a good 20 minutes, never once even trying to fire a shot. Call it the “suspension of disbelief” if you will, but this was a little too contrived. Further, even in the context of tragic events Bellini’s bubbling music sometimes “lifts” spirits at cross-purposes with the staging. The exception was Giulietta’s poignant first aria, “Oh! quante volte” where the sparsely decorated, loveless bedroom matched the longing in her heart. Otherwise, the set design (Christian Schmidt) paled and almost went missing, much like an old photograph that fades in the drawer.

Hands down, it was Olga Kulchynska – in her debut role as Giulietta – and then the seasoned operatic powerhouse, Joyce DiDonato as Romeo, who stole the show. At only 25, Kulchynska mesmerized the audience in a way unprecedented for such a young singer. Her sound was sometimes a little metallic for my taste, and she occasionally had trouble carrying over the chorus, but overall, her tremendous talent points unmistakably to a serious opera career.

Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) © Monika Rittershaus
Olga Kulchynska (Giulietta) and Joyce DiDonato (Romeo)
© Monika Rittershaus

Unsurprisingly, Joyce DiDonato’s flawless voice made her Romeo a stunner. She convincingly sang, “May blood so senselessly shed indite you before Heaven” to the host of men who rejected her plea for peace between the two families, but the turn of later events saw her acting somewhat hyperactively. Nonetheless, her range and the way she carved out tones in both her head and chest voices were extraordinary. There is pure sentimentality in the libretto (Felice Romani) when the “live happily ever after” plan goes awry. Dying in Giulietta’s arms, Romeo sings this “come from time to time to weep at my grave.” Saccharine, maybe, but beautifully rendered.

The Philhamonia Zürich accompanied with its usual precision. Solo clarinettist Rita Meier played a particularly beautiful arioso at the beginning of Act II, and Massimiliano Martinelli’s cello solo was no less superb. Conductor Fabio Luisi is thought to be fairly reserved, but when an ebullient Joyce DiDonato embraced him demonstrably at the curtain call, he too beamed from ear to ear. As a rule, there’s nothing quite like an American superstar to help others cast all reserve aside.