Mounted as part of a Romeo and Juliet themed season along with West Side Story and Gounod's opera, Zandonai's 1922 opera Giulietta e Romeo, in its first German production since 1942, offered a distinctive retelling of the tragedy of the 'star-cross'd lovers', both as a composition and in staging.

Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta) and Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo) © Lutz Edelhoff
Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta) and Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo)
© Lutz Edelhoff

The score states "after Shakespeare" but Zandonai and his librettist, Arturo Rossato, draws on the common early 16th-century sources in a condensed drama of five scenes. Out went the parents, as well as Friar Laurence, Mercutio and the Nurse. As in his earlier Francesca da Rimini the essence of the work lies in three love duets of illicit nocturnal passion and morbidly destructive abandon, rather than youthful love, giving full expression to Zandonai's highly wrought Late Romantic Style, tempered by Impressionism and archaism.

The director Guy Montavon sets the work in the composer's own lifetime, opening in 1900 in a co-educational boarding school. The action begins in a boys' classroom, on whose walls are chalked lines from Shakespeare, with the pupils at rows of desks clad in schoolwear, flannel shorts and ties. In this teenage world, fighting erupts between the rival Montagues and Capulet gangs, incited by a shadowy older man (Tebaldo), procurer of illicit alcohol and willing girls. Text books are flung, shorts drop, skirts lifted, penknives drawn. Romeo arrives like a prim school prefect and peace is temporarily restored with the help of the janitor. A ravishing nocturnal intermezzo leads to the balcony scene, a staircase serving duty, and it is apparent that Romeo and the girlish Giulietta, in blouse and spectacles, are no strangers. Though the producer has them coyly singing from behind desks, inhibitions soon vanish in a torrid duet. Uniforms are stripped off, and swearing love-in-death like a teen Tristan and Isolde, they mark their union by slicing and binding their wrists in a bloody bond.

Siyabulela Ntlale (Tebaldo) and ensemble © Lutz Edelhoff
Siyabulela Ntlale (Tebaldo) and ensemble
© Lutz Edelhoff

Act 2 moves to the girls' dormitory and it is here that the abbreviated plot and concept begin to raise difficulties. Tebaldo's status as an older relative of Giulietta, in a borderline abusive relationship, begs the question as to his role in the school. He tells her she is to be married off, but she retorts she is already married to Romeo, who contrives to slip into her iron bedstead. Their tumultuous love duet is interrupted by Tebaldo calling her a shameless whore. Enraged, Romeo kills him with his penknife and flees.

Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo) and Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta) © Lutz Edelhoff
Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo) and Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta)
© Lutz Edelhoff
For the last act, the action shifts forward to 1940s Fascist Mantua. A Pierrot entertains a wedding party, including Blackshirts, while standing by a vintage Alfa-Romeo – appropriately – is a grey-haired chauffeur, whom we realise is an aged Romeo. Pierrot sings of the death of a young girl in Verona and Romeo, knowing this is Giulietta, rushes off into a gathering storm, graphically described in an orchestral interlude. A video montage shows disintegrating clocks, Il Duce, an Allied bombing raid and mass destruction. We are back in the destroyed schoolroom where an old white-haired Giulietta lies death-like. In the most famous number in the score, “Giulietta! son io! Io, non mi vidi?”, Romeo cuts his wrists just as she awakens and as they sing their final duet, she is seemingly re-juvenated, discarding her white wig, putting on spectacles, transfigured, slowly climbing the stairway in the dawn as off-stage voices pray God's light should shine on the living and dead.

Whether the previous acts were to be seen as a dying flashback or as dream death-wish fulfilment was unclear. What happened to the lovers in the intervening years, and has Giulietta really been dead all along? Sustained by Zandonai's fervent score it did work on a surreal level, if not a a logical narrative.

A virtual two-hander, the taxing title roles were sung by Ukrainian tenor Eduard Martynyuck and Lithuanian ensemble member Jomantė Šležaitė. Looking handsome in shorts, Martynyuck's robust voice balanced clarion high notes and sensitivity. Šležaitė's lyrically blooming soprano had sufficient power to ride the heavily orchestrated duets. Siyabulela Ntlale displayed a vigorous Italianate baritone as Tebaldo. Smaller roles were taken by the ensemble with an elegant Won Whi Choi as the Pierrot.

Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo) and Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta) © Lutz Edelhoff
Eduard Martynyuk (Romeo) and Jomantė Šležaitė (Giulietta)
© Lutz Edelhoff

The première had been conducted by the Music Director of the Greek National Opera but at this performance his place was taken by Zoi Tsokanu. She drew an idiomatic performance of this unfamiar score exploiting the opulent harmonies and textures, whilst giving the orchestra full rein in Romeo's night-ride.

The lack of any truly memorable melodies, in contrast to contemporaries like Cilea and Giordano, and the elided plot, torrid in its lingering fin de siècle decadence, probably accounts for its neglect , but those with a taste for Late Romantic rarities would find it worth discovering. It is worth noting that neighbouring Braunschweig Opera is also mounting a production this spring.