In the last few decades, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi has flirted with standard repertory status, but it has not sufficiently won the hearts of opera-goers to warrant more than the occasional production. Though blessed with some of the composer’s finest melodies, the opera has problems for modern audiences. Firstly, the tale does not follow Shakespeare’s version of the star-cross’d lovers’ story; the protagonists are already in love when the opera begins, which means no ball, no love at first sight, no balcony scene. Secondly, the libretto’s dramatic shortcomings need bel canto singers of the highest order to bring the opera to life, and then usually only as a musical experience. San Francisco Opera gave this vocal vehicle another shot in a new staging, co-produced by the Bavarian State Opera, for the simple reason that they had two bel canto luminaries in Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell who wanted to sing it. As has been the case with Capuleti in our times, the opera succeeded as a showcase for voices, but failed to engage beyond that.

Joyce DiDonato is one of the hottest properties in the business right now. She has earned accolades for her winning way with Rossini’s heroines (and trouser roles), but has also achieved great triumphs in works by Handel, Mozart, and Richard Strauss. From the moment she made her entrance on Wednesday night, it was clear that Bellini’s Romeo was in sure hands. DiDonato sang her numbers with ardor and style against the drab surroundings of Vincent Lemaire’s sets and fashion designer icon Christian Lacroix’s costumes. At times, the role’s high-lying passages showed an uneasy vibrato, but DiDonato’s middle range was as secure and beautiful as you could hope for in this repertoire. In her San Francisco Opera debut, American soprano Nicole Cabell was a sensuous Giulietta to DiDonato’s impassioned Romeo. Cabell, who won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005, has sung many seconda donna roles but here showed she is ready for bigger assignments. Her creamy tone and exquisite phrasing were an ideal complement to DiDonato and the opera's many breathtaking duets were a delight to hear.

Though two female singers enjoy the spotlight in this opera, Capuleti is set in a male-dominated world, and a particularly martial, bloodthirsty one at that. The San Francisco Opera’s male chorus sounded appropriately mean in their scenes, cursing the other family or vowing vengeance for some past wrong. The role of Tebaldo, one of the Capulets’ more balanced men, is not a major one but he does enjoy one great scene at the beginning of the opera. Unfortunately Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu did not deliver a triumph on this occasion. The up and comer’s upside, indeed, looks promising and I look forward to hearing him in more gratifying roles. In a bizarre case of luxury casting, superstar bass baritone Eric Owens sang the role of Giulietta’s father Capellio. What little there was for him to do, Owens did admirably, but this seemed like a contractual obligation signed long before Owens emerged as one the art form’s brightest lights singing Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring in 2010. Current Adler Fellow Ao Li, was excellent in the other small role of Lorenzo, the apothecary who unwittingly sets the tragedy in motion with his sleep elixir.

Though it is a facile, oft-heard cliché to say that bel canto operas need only great vocalism to justify their presentation on the stage, Vincent Boussard’s staging is an exception to that dubious rule. The singing in the performance, for the most part, was of a high order, but the production was dull and constantly worked against the vocal efforts of its cast. Though some attendees around me invoked the term “Eurotrash”, I found nothing perverse or radically reinterpreted in the production. In fact the absence of a point of view was far more damaging to the opera’s presentation than any contrarian or unnecessarily provocative one would have been. I failed to detect much evidence of thought or care on the part of the producers as to how to present this story. The principals standing motionless with their backs to the audience was only one off-putting directorial conceit in a show that inexplicably had two dozen English saddles suspended from the ceiling in the first scene, Giulietta singing “Oh! quante volte” on one foot in a basin four feet off the ground, and Romeo in top hat and tails ascending stadium stairs and unflatteringly recalling Georges Guétary singing “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” from An American in Paris, only minus the glitz and fun. Those who closed their eyes, sat back, and listened to DiDonato and Cabell sing those delicious duets surely had the right idea.