February 24, 26 2012
Genoa, Italy 
Teatro Carlo Felice
Roméo et Juliette: “Le Rêve Était Trop Beau…”
As we left Genoa in the predawn darkness of 5:00 am to catch our flight home, all was still. Even the great fountain in the center of Piazza de Ferrari that faced Teatro Carlo Felice was a cold, dark profile, bereft of the sparkling waters that had animated it in daylight. Genoa was a city of dreamers on the verge of waking to reality, reinforcing my own thoughts preoccupied with a hard truth. Our hopes for Andrea’s Romeo et Juliette had run the same emotional gamut as the fate of those ill-fated lovers—from exuberant anticipation to the realization that a beautiful dream had been snatched away.
Generally, nothing good ever comes of a man walking onstage with microphone in hand before a theatrical performance begins. In this case, the full force of the message the Superintendent of the Teatro Carlo Felice had to deliver on opening night of Roméo et Juliette came slowly as I struggled to comprehend the swiftly delivered Italian of his announcement. Roughly translated, he explained that Genoa had been seized by an extraordinary cold spell, as a result influenza was rampant, Andrea had fallen victim, he had called earlier in the day to say it was impossible for him to sing the opening performance. The tenor in the alternate cast was called. But he was in even worse shape. Andrea was consulted again. In the end, it was only owing to his “great heart” that we were to have the “real Andrea Bocelli” sing after all. A sigh of relief murmured through the audience. But…


“O nuit divine” (Act 2, scene 5)
Without doubt, this production of Roméo et Juliette at the Teatro Carlo Felice was visually and musically ravishing! The mostly young cast benefitted from the spotlight that shone on all because of Andrea Bocelli’s “straordinario” participation. Fabio Luisi, a native son of Genoa, lent his extraordinary talent and his prestige as the newly named principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. The sold-out performances were a welcome infusion for a theater that is struggling, like so many other Italian cultural institutions, from the financial cuts imposed by an economy in crisis. Many had been drawn to Genoa from around the world to take advantage of the rare opportunity of seeing and hearing Andrea in a staged opera.
Andrea made a fine Romeo—clean-shaven, youthfully fit, all gray banished from his hair. He was clad in a dashingly tailored leather jacket of vivid teal lined in a deep tangerine that was shown to effect in the stand-up collar that nicely framed his handsome face. He was secure enough in his masculinity—and tall enough—to carry off the generous gathered folds of the courtly velvet pants that were set off by a pair of high cuffed boots of brown suede. The role of Juliet is a coloratura tour de force for a young soprano, and Andrea’s partner both nights, Maite Alberola, sang brilliantly and was a supportive colleague, interacting tenderly and passionately with her Romeo. Also, Romeo’s lively young page Stéphano, portrayed with great panache by Annalisa Stroppa, played a critical role at his side to ease Andrea’s stage movements, but with incredibly skillful subtlety. She brought the house down with her vocally secure and dazzling rendition of the arrogant song in Act 3 that mocks the Capulets and precipitates the unfortunate street conflict that ends tragically. Certainly each one in the cast contributed fine vocal highlights, and the chorus was particularly strong.
With suggestive simplicity, the set designs reinforced Gounod’s romantically lyrical and emotionally dramatic work—for Act 2, the sloping brick garden wall backed by an impressionistic line of tall, dark-green cedars, so typical of the Italian countryside, with the full moon projected on the backdrop among the treetops; for Act 3, the architecturally massive striped walls, rows of graceful archways, and the sloping crescent-shaped piazza reminiscent of Siena and so many other Tuscan hill towns; Act 4 suggested Juliet’s bedroom using voluminous folds of white drapery cascading from ceiling to floor; and for Act 5, the stark symmetry of four sepulchers provided the grim backdrop for the tragic denouement.
The imaginative set design and staging also creatively allowed Andrea to make the best use of his capabilities. How effortless it seemed when he sought a hiding place to conceal himself from the rival Capulet gang and dodged with agility around the side of the sloping garden wall or leapt with athletic ease a good three feet to reach the reward of his Juliet standing enticingly above him on that same wall. Act 3 required a demanding sword fight between Romeo and Tybalt that ends in Tybalt’s death and is crucial to the plot. Cleverly, the fight begins in view of the audience but is quickly moved to the hidden spot behind the two rows of archways that formed a focal point at the front of the stage. We hear the urgent clanging of the swords and, at the pivotal moment, the two rows of arches are swiftly drawn back into the wings of the stage revealing Romeo delivering the death blow to Tybalt. As he has often done in previous staged productions, Andrea demonstrated an uncanny ease of stage presence, relaxed and secure, as at the beginning of the Act 3 wedding scene in Frère Laurent’s cell, when he strode unhesitatingly from the back of the stage down the sloped floor, stopped precisely beside Frère Laurent, and knelt swiftly and easily at his feet. In this same scene, it required considerable stamina for him to kneel upright on the unforgiving wooden stage for the duration of the long wedding ceremony while enthusiastically singing the exchanged vows.
Andrea effectively used impressive subtlety of gesture in his characterization. Naturally, there are frequent love scenes central to the action of the opera, and Andrea conveyed toward Juliet a genuine tenderness in the kisses (a courtly caress of his lips to her shyly extended hand at their first meeting in Act 1), embraces (youthfully torrid stolen kisses in the garden scene of Act 2), and gentle gestures of affection (the Act 3 scene that ardently consummates their love as husband and wife before Romeo’s departure into exile).
When Andrea parts from Juliet at their first meeting, the final note of his farewell aria that is like a gentle lullaby is punctuated by his hand extended back to deliver a blown kiss to his sleeping love. Andrea shows realistic effort to subdue his initial anger when provoked by Tybalt in the sung dialogue leading up to their fateful duel and finally unleashes convincing justified rage at the death of his friend Mercutio at Tybalt’s hand. The contrast he evoked between the two phases of emotion was very effective. When Mercutio dies, he tenderly closes the eyes of his beloved friend in a sorrowful stroke. In the final death scene of Act 5, as he approaches the body of Juliet on the sepulcher, he slowly draws the white veil that covers her with a gesture of all-consuming sadness and kisses her lips with a visible grief perfectly reflecting the lyric, “mes lèvres, donnez-lui votre dernier baiser [my lips, give her your last kiss].” When, in this same scene, Juliet learns for the first time that her Romeo is doomed by the poison he has taken, Andrea’s strong supportive embrace and loving stroke of her hair effectively underscores the gentle words he sings with an inspired sadness to seek to rally her: “Console-toi, pauvre âme, le rêve était trop beau! [Console yourself, poor soul, the dream was too beautiful!]”


“Ah, jour de deuil” (Act 2, Scene 4)
There is a saying: hindsight is always 20/20. If only Frère Laurent had told Romeo that Juliet’s death was merely feigned. If only Andrea had somehow avoided the illness that, in fact, robbed him of full voice. We will never know what he could have done in this most challenging of vocal roles. Although our tenor made the courageous choice to sing and tried valiantly to overcome the effects of the malady that besieged his voice, the reality is that his two performances were a shadow of what might have been achieved.
Yet, despite this loss, there were many memorable vocal moments, particularly the second night when Andrea did seem to rally (an effort that may, in fact, have taken its toll and led to the crisis that forced the final performance’s cancellation). Both nights, the audience responded warmly to the evening’s achievements, applauding solidly each of the beautifully blended love duets and the strong high notes that Andrea managed in his arias despite the toll taken by his illness—particularly the long, high powerful note of final protest at the end of the third act when Romeo responds to the sentence of exile.
Perhaps it is an unforgivable transgression in the sternly tradition-bound world of opera cognoscenti to “break character” and react to an enthusiastic audience response, but who would be so unfeeling as to reprimand the compelling honesty of Andrea’s grateful smile after he completed a very solid rendition of “Ah lève-toi, soleil” that expresses the yearning for the appearance of his Juliet in the tranquil garden scene of Act 2.  And Romeo’s gentle aria of farewell to Juliet at their parting, “Va…ripose,” was as delicate as a blown kiss, as ephemeral as a dream imbued with the wistful melancholy born at the soulful source of Andrea’s singular voice. Yet, in the final death scene the second night, with perspiration on his brow, it was clear that he had given all that he had and was physically spent at the dramatic vocal moment when the lovers’ voices are raised together to ask God’s pardon. Everyone seemed appreciative of the cost required to give everything he could, and the curtain calls were numerous. But the toll had been taken.
Unlike others who had seen the announcements on the Internet Monday night of the forced cancellation of the third performance, we went to bed dreaming of a chance for a rejuvenated Andrea to display his true strengths. This was also Andrea’s assumption when he left for Tuscany Sunday evening. Jack learned the disappointing news from one of the State Department guards protecting the American ambassador who was staying at our hotel and had planned to attend the third opera. It is difficult not to draw a comparison—the ill-fated houses of Montague and Capulet—the ill-fated house of Bocelli. Painful memories returned of the strike in Palermo that had robbed us of Andrea’s Faust. We shared our woes over breakfast Tuesday morning. One fan offered a glimpse of the final death scene she had secretly recorded on her camera. It was intensely dramatic and the singing quite wonderful. Perhaps, after all, a DVD could be possible? Multiple cameras and microphones were visible recording the performances the first two nights, and there was footage from the dress rehearsal. But with the doctor’s orders to Andrea to cease the use of his voice for the immediate future, the finishing touches for the CD and DVD projects could be in jeopardy. Only time will tell.
In the end, we did decide to go to the final performance. The French tenor Jean-Francois Borras, who had been called in at the last minute to replace Andrea, was more than capable (albeit a bit plump—the finely tailored leather jacket was a tight squeeze and the love scene in the “floating” bed was more than a little cramped for space). For me, the performance was a bit like the waterless great fountain in the piazza. There was no Andrea. The life had been drained from the experience. My heart ached to hear another sing the gentle “Va…ripose,” an aria that reflected so perfectly the singularly warm, natural, delicate beauty of Andrea’s voice. Although there did not seem to be a noticeable decrease in the audience numbers because of Andrea’s absence, they were not nearly as responsive as they had been to him. 


“Il faut partir, hélas!” (Act 4, Scene 1)
Once again, Andrea’s charismatic talent and great heart had gathered friends to him from around the world and opened the door to the delights of his beloved Italy. We had eagerly sampled what Genoa, a city rich in history and culture, had to offer. Because of our Tuscan tenor, we had basked in the beauty of Liguria and the coastal towns of the dazzling “Italian Riviera” and tasted the regional cuisine of the great port that had launched Christopher Columbus to a New World. We had a new opera to add to the growing list of musical treasures we might never have known without Andrea’s inspiration to explore them. For now, we would carefully tuck away the fragile moments of magic we had gathered from an enchanting sojourn in Genoa and each return to our homes that span the globe. As for Andrea, he now prepares a new and most challenging role—as the daddy of little Virginia. In bocca al lupo, babbo, and also to valiant Veronica!
by Cami McNamee
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