As I took my seat last night for Pop-Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I heard someone explain, ‘It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without any of the nice bits.’ Which, as it turns out, is a pretty accurate summary of this opera by Vincenzo Bellini. By the time our story begins, Romeo and Giulietta are already embroiled in a secret love affair, helped by their friend Lorenzo, and Romeo’s on the run for killing her brother. Giulietta’s father, Capellio, decides to marry her off to Tebaldo, and in desperation she fakes her death. But Lorenzo’s prevented from getting a message to Romeo, who – as in Shakespeare’s version of the tale – goes to Giulietta’s tomb to kill himself.
Now, I haven’t seen a huge amount of opera, but I think it’s fair to assume this was quite a unique experience, even for those who have. First, the venue. Pop-Up Opera are a touring company who bring opera to new audiences in unusual locations; this particular tour will take them to the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, the London Museum of Water and Steam, and the spectacular Minack Theatre in Cornwall. In comparison, our venue – the basement bar of a restaurant in Marylebone – may not have been the most romantic, but it was still a suitably intimate and atmospheric setting, and my only complaint was that occasionally events took place on the other side of a concrete pillar.
The classic love story of Romeo and Giulietta has been reworked by stage director James Hurley into a modern thriller, in which the Montecchi and Capuleti are rival gangs locked in a long-running feud. Instead of swords and potions, this version has guns and pills, and unfolds on a set illuminated by harsh electric light and littered with crumpled paper and overturned chairs. From the outset, there are moments of brutal violence (I know I wasn’t the only audience member who flinched when Capellio advanced on a captive Romeo holding a pair of pliers), and the fact that we know how the story’s going to end does nothing to dispel the tension in what turns out to be a gripping drama.
In another original twist, Harry Percival’s English captions (inspired by Eurotrash, apparently) don’t seek to translate everything word for word, instead summarising each scene in the style of an old black and white movie. This has a dual effect: it means we get to concentrate on the action, and not spend an entire evening staring at the wall, and it allows a little more artistic licence with the translation – I can’t help wondering how Bellini would have felt about his hero being called an ‘asshole’, but it made me smile all the same.
But the modern translations, as amusing as they occasionally are, don’t detract from the beauty and emotion of Bellini’s score, or the quality of the performances – proving once and for all that you don’t necessarily need to understand every word to appreciate what’s going on. Each member of our cast – there are two on the tour – gives it everything, and it’s easy to forget there are only five of them, and that they’re backed by a single piano (played by musical director Berrak Dyer), not a full orchestra. Flora McIntosh’s Romeo is brash and reckless, while Cliff Zammit-Stevens is a sympathetic Tebaldo; an enemy he may be, but it’s clear he genuinely loves Giulietta and is as broken by her ‘death’ as his rival. Andrew Tipple’s proud Capellio is every inch the mafia boss, concerned only with family honour, even if it means rejecting his beloved daughter, and Matthew Palmer, in stark contrast, is a far gentler presence as the lovers’ mutual friend Lorenzo.
But it’s Alice Privett who gives the most memorable – and emotional – performance as Giulietta, a young woman caught between love and duty, and pulled this way and that by the headstrong men in her life. Her visible pain during the lovers’ final farewell means that emotions inevitably run high offstage as well as on.
Pop-Up Opera’s aim is to make opera accessible to a wider audience, people who may perhaps have dismissed it in the past as pretentious or boring. In this they certainly succeed, taking a classic story and giving it a modern twist, so that it feels fresh and exciting. And while it’s clear that they’re a company with a cheeky sense of humour, this doesn’t come at the expense of a high quality performance.
So if you think opera’s not for you, maybe give these guys a try, before you decide for sure…