Lesbian Plot Twist for Romeo and Juliet: The Israeli Opera's Surprise New Staging

Wherefore art thou Romeo? In a dramatic change to one of the best known love stories in Western culture, the Israel Opera is staging a lesbian production of Bellini’s 'The Capulets and the Montagues'

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The Israeli Opera's Romeo and Juliet. Ella Vasilevitsky as Juliet (R) and Tal Bergman as Romeo (L)
The Israeli Opera's Romeo and Juliet. Ella Vasilevitsky as Juliet, right, and Tal Bergman as Romeo, left.Credit: Yossi Zwecker
Hagai Hitron
Hagai Hitron

In the Israeli Opera season finale, Vincenzo Bellini's “The Capulets and the Montagues” gets a dramatic makeover. Like the Shakespearean plot, the center of the story is forbidden love between Juliet, the daughter of the noble Capulet family in 13th-century Verona, and Romeo, the son of a rival family, the Montagues. It is one of the best known stories in Western culture, a tale of love that ends in a fateful mistake and death. But in the Israeli production, Romeo is a woman, and the secret love affair is between two women.

For me, same-sex love has to be considered one of the normal possibilities of love

Director Hanan Snir

The main justification for this decision is presented by the director, Hanan Snir, who notes that Bellini had originally composed the role of the lover Romeo for a soprano, a woman.

The contemporary production of the Israel Opera – the first time in its history that it has staged a Bellini production – is led by Snir and conductor Dan Ettinger. Juliet is played by soprano Ella Vasilevitsky, and Romeo is played by soprano Tal Bergman. The other leading roles are also played by Israelis, including Vladimir Braun, Noah Briger and Eitan Drori. The Rishon Letzion Symphony Orchestra provides the music.

'You see the two girls, Julietta and Romea, who are still schoolgirls. They play and they hug and they hide from the nuns'

Ella Vasilevitsky as Juliet. Credit: Yossi Zwecker

“Romeo and Juliet” – that is how the Israel Opera chose to name its production, dispensing with Bellini's original title – is quite a mellifluous opera. The music is beautiful; some will say banally so. Prominently featured are ascents to the top of the scale in slow arias, showcasing the abilities of the singer. To my mind, there are not many particularly inspiring melodies in the work; on the other hand, none of the melodies are bland.

Meanwhile, the opera's dramatic aspects posed their own unique challenges to the director.

Is “Romeo and Juliet” difficult to direct?

Hanan Snir: “Not difficult and not easy, like any opera. The music is very pleasant to the ear and exciting, but in terms of drama the opera is quite static. The librettist and the composer didn't think deeply about the need for movement on the stage.

"I had problems that I had to solve even before the rehearsals. Mainly, I had to make it clear who was against whom, to magnify the conflict as much as possible."

Among other factors, in your version the conflict is also magnified by the choice to make Romeo a woman

“True. I show that right off the bat during the overture. While it's playing, the audience sees the home of the Capulets, a conservative home actually dominated by monks. You see the monks and you see the two girls, Julietta and Romea, who are still schoolgirls. They play and they hug and they hide from the nuns. One of the nuns apparently informs Julia’s brother that his sister is hanging out with a woman, he follows her and catches them embracing. He tries to kill his sister for defiling the family honor. But Romea hastens to rescue her beloved, fights the brother, a bullet is discharged and the brother falls and dies."

And later on, is the element of lesbian love emphasized, is it dominant?

“It’s not at all dominant and it’s not overly emphasized, it’s no different from the love between a man and a woman. Love is love, in every gender, and it even crosses genders. For me, same-sex love has to be considered one of the normal possibilities of love. The opera I directed doesn’t try to raise the LGBTQ flag. In the simple unfolding of the plot, Julia’s family doesn’t know until the end that Romeo is a woman. The audience knows of course, as does the gang of Montagues, whose leader is Romeo.

'Julia’s family doesn’t know until the end that Romeo is a woman. The audience knows of course, as does the gang of Montagues, whose leader is Romeo'

Tal Bergman as Romeo. Bellini originally wrote the part for a sopranoCredit: Yossi Zwecker

In that case, how is the lesbianism of Julietta and Romea expressed in the staging?

It isn’t particularly expressed. It’s enough that the two singers are women and look like women. Romea has flowing red hair, there’s no possibility of a mistake.

And in the text that is sung, in Italian, are the words the same as in an ordinary version, with gender emphasis provided by the Hebrew subtitles?

“True. But we tried as much as possible to refrain from pronouns that would emphasize that the couple is of the same sex. In order to avoid an overly strong contrast between the singing and the Hebrew subtitles, we even decided to stick to ‘Romeo’ rather than changing it to ‘Romea,’ which seems an obvious solution.”

Is sticking to the original text and the original plot a regular principle in your career as a director?

“On the contrary. During my years in the theater I have often changed original texts without hesitation. I believe that the play has to be contemporary; not by transferring the plot to the present, but by rendering it, even if it’s clearly taking place in an earlier period, in a way that is interesting, moving and relevant to a contemporary audience.”

You didn’t introduce drastic changes to this specific opera by Bellini. But you thought about it

“I’m excited about the possibility. It would have served the plot better. But I didn’t feel that it was realistic under the circumstances; it would have been a complicated operation and would have had to have been a collaboration with the conductor, and I didn’t know Dan Ettinger beforehand. But I do think he is suited to such revolutions. If we had gone the revolutionary way, the first thing I would have done would be to change the name, from Romeo to Romea.”

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