Shakespeare / Bellini: Romeo & Giulietta (Romeo and Juliet)

On Friday, March 23, 2018, the Saint Joseph Hill Retreat Center on Staten Island will host Romeo & Giulietta, a combination of scenes from William Shakespeare’s dramatic masterpiece Romeo and Juliet and highlights from Vincenzo Bellini’s magnificent bel canto opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Read on for interviews with the singers who portray the world’s most famous star-crossed lovers. But first, the details.

Date & Time: Friday March 23, 2018. Reception 6:00-7:00 (food included in the ticket price!); performance starts at 7:15 and lasts about 1 hour
Location: Saint Joseph Retreat Center, 850 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island
Transportation: Off-street parking available. Reasonable walking distance from public transportation: try the CitiMapper app for routes.

About the show

The arrangement of Romeo & Giulietta is by Hayden DeWitt, a marvelous mezzo-soprano who’ll play Romeo. Allegra Durante, a lyric coloratura soprano, plays Giulietta. Tybalt, Lawrence, and Everyone Else are played by actor Preston F. Smith. Yiling Ding will accompany from the piano. The fully costumed performance will take place in the elegant chapel of the Saint Joseph Hill Retreat Center.

One of the many reasons I love this show (which I’ve seen in three or four different iterations) is that the Shakespeare excerpts let me know where we are in the story, so I can enjoy the music without needing subtitles.  There will be program notes to help us navigate the Italian portions.

Q&A with Romeo and Juliet: on performing this show

Q: What makes your character roll out of bed in the morning?

Hayden DeWitt:

For Romeo, it’s time-constraints. He and Giulietta are already secretly married, but the clock is ticking on her marriage to Tybalt, a member of the Capulet clan and the heir apparent to their political faction. As the wedding approaches, Romeo desperately needs to find a way around this problem. He shows up in the Capulet palace and makes an official offer of marriage to Giulietta as a means of reconciling the bad blood between their two families, but it is rebuffed by Tybalt.‎ With no time to lose, Lawrence (Giulietta’s doctor, in this version) guides Romeo to Giulietta’s chamber by a secret passage so he can convince her to escape with him. She refuses, knowing that, if they are caught, it would mean certain death for both of them. I don’t think Romeo is getting much sleep, at this point (although he does allude to a dream he’s had, later in the piece), so rolling out of bed is not much of a problem!

Allegra Durante:

As the only daughter and the lady of the household (Giulietta’s mother is apparently deceased), Giulietta has responsibilities to fulfill. However, she’s most excited at the prospect of seeing Romeo, whom she loves. She hopes he will eventually be able (in a completely honorable way that is agreed upon by all parties involved, including her family) to take her away from the Capulet household so she can finally live her own life, rather than continuing to fill the role she’s had to step into as a substitute for her own lost mother.

What’s been your favorite part of preparing your role, and/or the most interesting thing you learned about your character? Has that changed from previous performances of Romeo & Giulietta?

Allegra Durante:

The music is beautiful and challenging, and always a joy to revisit. In terms of character, Shakespeare’s Juliet and Bellini’s Giulietta have similar but distinct personalities. To find the common ground between the two of them, so the spoken and sung sections are equally well-motivated and everything makes sense as part of the whole, I have to treat this Giulietta/Juliet as a third character, informed by yet separate from both her sources.

I’ve learned more about the historical context of the opera since our last performances, including that if the wife of a household died, the eldest daughter would be expected to take on many of her responsibilities. That tells me a lot about Giulietta’s day-to-day life, and helps me understand how she can be unwilling to abandon her duty to her own family and yet desperate to run away with Romeo.

One “perk” of being the eldest Capulet lady is that Giulietta can speak her mind more than most daughters could; a rare privilege. In my understanding of our story, she has hopes to persuade her father to end her ongoing engagement to her kinsman Tybalt in favor of a marriage to Romeo. It’s only Tybalt’s rebuke of Romeo and subsequent fast-forwarding of his own engagement to Giulietta that throws Ye Olde Wrench in her plans. The character has many, many layers, and I don’t see myself becoming bored of her any time soon.

Preston F. Smith as Tybalt and Hayden DeWitt as Romeo in Romeo & Giulietta. Photo: Joseph Henry Ritter

Hayden DeWitt:

I love Romeo’s activeness and persistence. Stepping into that energy is a good antidote to those feelings of passiveness and “throwing-in-the-towelness.”

Regarding how my view of the character has changed since earlier iterations, I used to see this (operatic) Romeo as a much more tragic figure, deadly serious and with little humor, which made for a lot of DRAMA in the piece. Since Giulietta’s plight is so bad, I figured she has the greater right to mopey-ness, and decided to look for more ways for Romeo to bring some lightness to the scenes, or at least offer a reprieve from all the heaviness. Incorporating the spoken Shakespeare certainly makes that easier. The opera is primarily a political drama and is inherently serious; borrowing from Shakespeare expanded the available emotional palette considerably. Even Giulietta gets to crack a joke or two.

What’s your favorite aria or scene?

Allegra Durante:

My favorite part of any show is building scenes and characters alongside the performers I share the stage with, so I’ll say the scene we call the “Big Duet,” when Romeo tries to convince Giulietta to run away with him. It reads to me as a straightforward dialogue complete with arguments and counter-arguments (and the occasional Renaissance-style dance break), except that when a character changes their tactic it’s echoed by a change in the character of the music. There are many ways the scene could be done, but this time around it feels like a very realistic lovers’ quarrel. Romeo and Giulietta clearly respect and care for each other, yet their personal situations are so different that it’s impossible for either to truly understand the other’s point of view.

Which aria or scene was the most challenging?

Hayden DeWitt:

The scene where Romeo sneaks back into the Capuleti stronghold to convince Giulietta to leave with him is an epic duet. The music runs the emotional and dramatic gamut and incorporates every convention and formula of bel canto writing. It’s a deeply psychological scene with a surprising amount of nuance built in, but almost nothing happens… He pleads, she refuses. He tries the guilt-trip approach, she won’t be guilted, seduced or bullied. He yells. She yells. He, at last, gets it that she’s not coming with him and finally exits. I think the scene makes big demands on a non-Italian-speaking audience. We have blended in some spoken Shakespeare text here and there, in an effort to keep the feeling of a hybrid work alive during such a long spate of singing. I am happy with the adaptation, but still feel that, given the constraints of the space, in terms of staging, and the demands of the music, it’s a stretch to keep it really alive and accessible in an intimate venue.

What’s your favorite aria or scene?

Hayden DeWitt:

I have always loved the tomb scene. In Shakespeare, Romeo drinks the poison, saying, “Good apothecary, thy drugs are quick.” He is dead with no time to spare, as Giulietta comes out of hibernation to find his lifeless body and monologize before killing herself. In the opera, the poison is much slower-acting, leaving the singers time for a powerful and poignant duet before the inevitable happens.

Which aria or scene was the most challenging?

Allegra Durante:

I’m consistently challenged by the sleeping potion scene, “Morte io non temo,” in which Giulietta speaks her final words before beginning her 42-hour snooze (of which we then fast-forward to approximately the last 20 minutes, through the magic of theatre). I find the floating, upward lines of that aria to be the most demanding of everything I sing in the show, even more than music that sits higher or moves more quickly. After the aria, Giulietta has a tour-de-force monologue in which she considers every possible negative outcome before finally drinking the potion. This edition of the project includes the most complete version of this monologue to date, so I have to be mindful to stay on track since both of the previous iterations had different cuts.

Also, each time we bring back this production I need a decent amount of rehearsal on the tomb scene at the very end of the show. The staging and music are fairly simple, but I need to de-sensitize myself to the emotion the music conveys. Bellini’s writing is extremely effective, and when I’m wrapped up in it it’s difficult to ignore all the “Easter eggs” I’ve found while studying the music. For example, an accompaniment that sketches a heartbeat slowing and weakening, until…

The scene is beautifully written and perfectly engineered to tug at the heartstrings, and it will wreck me every time if I’m not careful in how I approach it. Thank heavens I’ve figured out how to sing and cry at the same time.

Do you have to change what you’re doing with your voice from speaking Shakespeare to singing Bellini?

Hayden DeWitt:

Speaking Shakespeare feels alot like singing. It requires full body engagement and really keeping the breath flowing, in order to project to the ends of the lines‎. One challenge for me as Romeo is the disparity between the high singing range and the low speaking range. I try to keep the speaking in a slightly lower-pitched, more masculine range, but much of the vocal music is actually quite high. I worry that the speaking will sound jarringly feminine and work against the illusion of male-ness I am trying to create, but the whole thing requires such a suspension of disbelief anyway, that I don’t obsess about it too much.

Allegra Durante as Juliet in Romeo & Giulietta.

Allegra Durante:

Singing opera and reciting text are similar in that both rely on a supported supply of freely-moving breath. I feel very comfortable with the text, so I try to use that to inform how I sing – in this show that can be very beneficial, as there aren’t many pauses to go off-stage and rest. There are also a lot of differences. My natural speaking voice sits relatively low, so that’s where most of my speech ends up, but most of what I sing sits fairly high. I have to be mindful when I switch from speaking range to singing range to make a few adjustments, especially incorporating the right amount of head voice, so that the sound carries and “spins.”

Another difference is that spoken text and operatic text have different vocabularies for conveying dramatic effects. In speech, you can easily go for effect by “compromising” your technique: altering your airflow, altering the vowel, even a smidge of vocal fry. There’s much less room for “fudging it” in opera. If I push my breath abruptly or nudge a vowel too far in the wrong direction, the sound may not carry or the pitch may go flat. I performed theatre before I ever sang opera, and I still find myself fighting the instinct to use my speech toolbox when I sing.

Q&A with Allegra Durante on costumes and staging

What period are you using? How does the staging change for performing in this space?

Allegra Durante:

The costumes fall somewhere between the Elizabethan period, in which Shakespeare lived, and the Italian Renaissance, when the story of Romeo and Juliet takes place. I have an interest in period costuming, and over the last 5-ish years I’ve amassed enough garments from approximately the right periods that I was able to pull 90% of our costumes and props from my personal collection. I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy and often mix and match shapes and styles across periods, but I do care about the garments being well-constructed from quality materials, fitting the actors well, and being appropriate for each character. That being said, I’m extremely proud of the look of this show and I can’t wait to see it all come together on Friday.

I’d guess that Hayden and I spent at least as much time restructuring and trimming costumes as we did rehearsing. Worth it!

About the staging: I’ve performed versions of this project in three venues including this one. Amusingly, none has been a traditional theatre, so the layout of each place has definitely informed our movements. The other two were open areas with audience on three sides and a single entrance, so when we came to this space we got a bit excited about having multiple doors and aisles to play with. Consequently, the staging morphed to take wild advantage of the features of this particular venue. If you’d like a close-up view of the aforementioned costumes, just sit anywhere near an aisle.

Q&A with Hayden DeWitt on the sources of the show

Was Shakespeare’s play Bellini’s only source? If not, what did he take from others? Did Bellini (or his librettist) change the story or the emphasis at all?

Hayden DeWitt:

I used to know a lot more about this subject, but basically speaking, there are many versions of this star-crossed lovers legend. The Bard’s, while certainly the most famous, is not nearly the first. In fact, he drew heavily from a 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke entitled “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet” which, in its turn, was adapted from a novella by Matteo Bandello, or perhaps a French adaptation of Bandello’s novella. With no copyright‎ laws, there was alot of “borrowing” going on.

Felice Romani, whose libretto Bellini set, is one of the leading 19th-century Italian wordsmiths, and he knew his audience well. The theatre-going public was much more interested in political dramas than in romances, and the backdrop of I Capuleti e i Montecchi is the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, medieval political factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively. In the opera, Romeo is head of the Ghibellines and Capulet (with his nephew Tybalt) head of the Guelphs. We have played down the political conflict considerably in our adaptation, but there is mention of it in Romeo’s aria, at the top of the show, where he introduces himself to the “nobili Guelfi” as an emissary of the Ghibellines.

How did you decide when in the show to use Shakespeare, when to use Bellini?

Hayden DeWitt:

Bellini came first because it’s harder to chop up the music than the play (though we did a pretty thorough job of both). After deciding which musical scenes to include, we began cobbling together the adapted story by inserting parts of scenes from the play that moved the plot along in the direction we wanted to take it. After that, shorter bits of dialogue or monologue were folded into the musical scenes to anchor the story for an English-speaking audience and provide changes ‎in texture for aural interest. This one-hour version, which we will be performing on the 23rd, actually came into being as the “workshop” model for a longer, more fleshed-out version. It was a first attempt at mixing and matching the music and dialogues and overlaying spoken text on the arias and duets.

How many versions of Romeo & Giulietta have you done? Is this the final one? If not, what do you want to work on next? (Or: if you had funding for a much larger production, what would you add?)

Hayden DeWitt:

The original adaption was a condensed version of the full opera with a full cast of singers (Romeo, Giulietta, Capulet‎, Lawrence and Tybalt) but with cuts to choruses and instrumental music. A cobbled-together narration from the play was performed either by an actor or by the singer playing Capulet.

Besides the current two-singer, one-actor version, there exists an expanded version with a singer as Tybalt and the roles of Capulet and Lawrence performed by two different actors. Pageboys for Romeo and Tybalt add to the pagentry.

Regarding a “big-budget” production, somewhere there is a sketch for a version which restores the singing roles of Capulet and Lawrence and incorporates several more scenes from the play, filling in a lot of the plot and character development gaps which we gloss over in the reduced version.

Q&A with Allegra Durante: the audience’s perspective

 What would you tell a newcomer to opera to bear in mind or listen for at their first bel canto opera?

NOTE: Bellini is one of the prime exponents (along with Rossini and Donizetti) of bel canto opera, which flourished ca. 1800-1830. Bel canto, “beautiful singing,” is one of those terms that came into use after the fact for period, and has never been clearly defined. Here’s one description:

A beautiful voice singing a beautiful melodic line beautifully, especially a melodic line driven by a sensitive musical setting of a poetic and singable text. The technique of singing that produced the desired results valued smooth production, or legato, throughout the entire vocal range. … Also prized was the ability to execute effortlessly all manner of embellishments – rapid-fire runs, trills and such – the better to decorate vocal lines. – Anthony Tommasini, “Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It?“, New York Times 11/28/2008

Allegra Durante:

This piece starts with spoken text and glides into the operatic segments. If it’s your first opera, you can anticipate that you’ll be experiencing something new, so aim to keep your mind open about what you’ll see and hear.

Bel canto music is one of the more melodic styles of opera, in which high drama is valued but never at the cost of the beauty of the art form. Even painful feelings are conveyed through music that is meant to be beautiful, which can take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to singing that directly reflects the rawness of anger or grief. Melodies are indicative of character moods or thoughts and are deliberately used to set the tone of each scene, with repeats and embellishment adding to the texture and the vehemence of the feeling. This style is also rife with cadenzas: strings of fast, high notes, frequently on an “ah,” which are used to convey emotion when more words wouldn’t be enough. (Fun fact: these types of cadenzas and embellishments are the ancestors of the riff in jazz and contemporary music.)

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about this production?

Allegra Durante:

I would like the thank the Daughters of Divine Charity for hosting us in 2015, and inviting us to perform in their remarkably acoustically gifted chapel again this year. My colleagues and I have all enjoyed this opportunity to return to Romeo and Giulietta, further develop the production, and share it with another audience!

More

  • If you’ve seen a previous version, as Romeo and Juliet: Palm to Palm or I Capuleti e i Montecchi: the arrangement has changed, the staging has changed, the costumes have changed. Yes, you should see it again. If you haven’t seen it, come find out how amazing it is!
  • To contact Allegra Durante and Hayden DeWitt about performances of the show elsewhere, email Allegra.Durante@gmail.com. Recordings of some arias may eventually appear on Allegra’s website, https://www.allegradurante.com .
  • Want more art like this delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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