At the Grand in Leeds, Orpha Phelan directs an expectedly hard-hitting and contemporary account of Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi ...[and] takes an audacious theatrical tilt at Bellini....Phelan and her designer, Leslie Travers, boldly update the action to the here and now. The Capulets and Montagues could be rival gangs anywhere — Naples, Chicago, Belfast, St Petersburg — and they are armed to the teeth; and the love story’s hinterland of feuding families is transformed into an in-yer-face foreground. In the opening scene, a female Montague “sniper” is captured by the Capulets and summarily executed — shockingly, by a gunshot fired by a small boy, egged on by the adults. Initially, this seems gratuitous, but it abruptly establishes the ruthlessness of the milieu in which Romeo and Giulietta find themselves — and the corrupting brutality of vendetta. Later, a Juliet double (Marie Hallager Andersen) is manhandled and thrown around the stage like a puppet on a string by her own relatives when her tryst with Romeo becomes public. On the whole, I find mute-actor alter egos irritating — and a bit of an insult to the artist being “doubled” — but here the image of Giulietta dreaming of her own rejection by her family worked potently and disturbingly. I had never imagined that Bellini’s opera could be so harrowing. Travers’s sets are disarmingly simple, an almost bare stage with a neo-Renaissance parquet floor, which fragments dramatically in Act II, as if caught in a photograph the moment a bomb has exploded underneath it. The symbolism of a fractured world is no less devastating for being obvious...Phelan gets wonderful acting performances from her cast.

The Sunday Times, 2008 [Hugh Canning]

 

Played out in a bomb-torn ballroom, with shards of parquet flooring suspended mid-explosion like a Cornelia Parker installation, Orpha Phelan's modern-dress I Capuleti e i Montecchifor Opera North makes a strong case for the opera Berlioz described as "disgusting, ridiculous, impotent". While the Capulets train their children to kill using enemy prisoners as their targets, Giuletta (Marie Arnet) watches helplessly as her body-double is thrown across the stage like a rag doll. The tone is muted, desperate, caged... ****  

The Independent on Sunday, 2008 [ Anna Picard]

 

...a production that makes engrossing theatre without smudging the music's beauty... The Irish director Orpha Phelan and her designers Leslie Travers and Chris Davey choose an abstract modern-dress setting that is as simple as it is vivid. The cast, led by Sarah Connolly's world-class Romeo and Marie Arnet's virginal Juliet, create strong personalities that embody Bellini's rapturous music... This Capuleti proclaims the many virtues of bel canto - and of Opera North. ****

The Financial Times, 2008 [Andrew Clark]

 

Orpha Phelan's production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a tour de force of grand opera, packed with detail...Phelan's staging is gritty and grimy: there is a literal iron curtain; Giulietta's room is a prison; the Montecchi soldiers arrive like the IRA, clad in balaclavas and bovver boots.  Yet the scene featuring Giuilietta's imagined wedding is pure magic...Opera North's production is victorious and does justice to Bellini's gorgeously lyrical score.

Metrolife, 2008 [Mickey Noonan]

 

...Orpha Phelan's imaginative staging, beautifully designed by Leslie Travers.... Phelan is sensible enough to let [Romeo and Giulietta] emote without undue distraction... 

The Observer, 2008 [Anthony Holden]

 

Orpha Phelan's new Opera North production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi relocates Bellini's take on Romeo and Juliet to an unspecified urban war zone in the late 20th century...Phelan is right to emphasise an aspect of the opera that most directors ignore. Discussions of I Capuleti usually focus on its relationship to Shakespeare and the fact that it reworks Romeo and Juliet's sources rather than the play itself.  We are incessantly reminded that there is no balcony scene, that Bellini's Lorenzo is a doctor not a priest, and that Tybalt and Paris are conflated into a single figure called Tebaldo.  The greatest difference is frequently glossed over, however:  where Shakespeare sets drama against the backdrop of an internicine family feud, Bellini positions his lovers on opposite sides of a senseless, if engulfing civil war.  Phelan is determined we should never forget this for a second...Not for the faint-hearted, but highly recommended... **** 

The Guardian, 2008 [Tim Ashley]

 

Irish born director Orpha Phelan has transferred Bellini's version of Romeo and Juliet from medieval Italy to a mid 20th century civil war in an unspecified city. The conflict between the two clans evokes comparison with the sectarian strife in the Balkans or Northern Ireland. The opening scene has the Capuleti hurrying to a council of war, gaining entrance through a door with a spyhole in a bullet-riddled wall. The men lovingly pass around a rifle before awarding it to a child for the privilege of executing a captured sniper. It's not a conventional view of Italy's most lyrical and elegant of bel canto composers yet Phelan and designer Leslie Travers understand that the world Bellini describes is far more macho than in Shakespeare's play... Phelan's concept works well for this highly charged drama... the final scene is of heart touching pathos. **** 

The Sunday Express, 2008 [Clare Colvin]

 

If we had thought we were in for a gentle romance that goes horribly wrong, Orpha Phelan’s production quickly disabused us. A young lad shot a ‘sniper’ in the head as the curtain rose... the cold-blooded, modern brutality of Baghdad or Belfast came easily to mind. Leslie Travers’s set for Act 2, with dangling wreckage and a shattered chandelier, underlined the internecine strife, as did the bodies of the injured littering the stage as if in the aftermath of a bomb blast.... Phelan managed to weld as international a cast as we have seen into a persuasive team. Most of all, she capitalized on the warlike atmosphere to heighten the tension between the lovers. There was always the feeling, even in their great duet in Act 1, which Connolly and Arnet handled with compelling tenderness, that they were living on borrowed time... Much was made in some quarters of the uniformly sombre costumes. The criticism was surely irrelevant, given the context: military men, let alone terrorists are not known for their loud outfits, nor are opera stages supposed to substitute for art galleries...The chorus was typically forceful. With the serene love scenes and the surrounding violence chillingly contrasted, this was hard-hitting theatre. 

Opera, 2009 [Martin Dreyer] 

 

Director Orpha Phelan’s concept of the opera is a depiction of lives torn apart by Civil War. Leslie Travers’ settings – dominated by a huge, broken chandelier – are abstract, the characters are in modern dress. We could just as easily be in Northern Ireland in the 1970s or Bosnia in the 1990s. Phelan’s tension-laden atmosphere almost smells of war and the sense of an impending cataclysmic event. She has created a compelling production which focuses attention on the characters – the five principals and the large chorus who make up the rival political factions. Crowd scenes are vividly animated and Phelan’s direction of the entire cast is so lovingly detailed that every nuance is projected across the stage with startling immediacy. The stark, visual modernist imagery – in a strange sort of way – fuses with the flowing musical line of Bellini’s score and its succession of florid arias and stirring choruses. This is a bel canto – beautiful singing – opera and that is exactly what we get from the principals and chorus of Opera North in this new production. 

The Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 2008 [Geoffrey Mogridge]

 

 

The drop-curtain, marked like a giant target and riddled with bullet holes, immediately alerts us to the fact that director Orpha Phelan has set the action in a contemporary, unspecified, war-torn country. The production is full of compelling imagery. The Capulets, anxiously hurrying on stage during the overture in ones and twos, need passes to enter their fortress community. A large but oppressively dingy skylight descends like prison bars over Giulietta's room at the beginning of her first scene. Through it we can make out guards casually coming and going in the background. Act 2 is played out against a heap of twisted metal and flooring -- an explosion caught in freeze-frame. Most startling of all, the final scene of Act 1 begins with Giulietta watching in horror as her worst fears about her impending marriage to Tebaldo are played out by a body double thrown around (in a harness) among the Caupleti men like a rag doll. Another brilliantly realised staging from Opera North. 

Music and Vision, 2008 [Mike Wheeler]

 

We find ourselves in the charred and pockmarked landscape of 20th-century civil war. It seems an unlikely setting for an 1830’s opera... but the great achievement of Bellini’s score was the way it combined ardent feeling with formal fluency, allowing the opera’s tragic action to flow in an out of its beautiful, often melancholy arias. It’s this dynamism, approaching naturalism, that Irish director Orpha Phelan’s approach suits. Bellini’s operas are often presented literally, as costume dramas. Instead Phelan gives us a Juliet so traumatized and assaulted by the vicious shocks of war she never dons the wedding dress her father has ordered for her, dying in grimy petticoat and pantyhose. The production's design palette of  charcoal, earth and dried blood is reflected in the vocal colouration of the predominantly male chorus. Its movingly restrained performance is integral to the show’s success.  

The Herald Sun Australia, 2009 

 

Orpha Phelan’s production is purposefully set in no specific time or place. Drawing on the minimalist tradition of Japanese Noh theatre, the design (Leslie Travers) was strong and stark....with a beautifully oppressive shattered light box as Juliet’s chamber. The disparity between the sheer beauty and lyricism of Bellini’s music, and the harsh severity of the environment was very effective, emphasising the tragedy of love striving against conflict. 

Australian Stage 2009

 

In a wonderful directorial flourish we see a double of Giulietta on a harness, pushed, prodded and poked as a pawn of the patriarchy and a victim of violence...Director Orpha Phelan and designer Leslie Travers have used a minimalist set and staging for this opera which puts the music and the performers centre stage, and what exquisite music it is! Read more The Fool and the Opera JOY 94.9 Australia 2009

 

Phelan captures Bellini’s original context... though he was a moderniser in his way, Bellini fell foul of the shift towards realism in theatre and a more symphonic conception in music. Phelan juxtaposes the gentle expressiveness of Bellini's lines with grim, dehumanised realism of modern sectarian violence: a young boy (Alexander Keighley) is taught to shoot an enemy woman before he is held hostage, a knife at his throat. The assertive disconnection between music and drama thus embodies the love-and-hate dichotomy at the heart of the Romeo and Juliet story. We have grown to expect that the hate will be portrayed by little more than costumed sword-play, and Phelan's confronting approach was bound to ruffle feathers; for me, the incongruity of setting added an effective edge.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 2009 

Reviews of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Opera North 2008 and Opera Australia 2009