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The score states "after Shakespeare" but Zandonai and his librettist, Arturo Rossato, draws on the common early 16th-century sources in a condensed drama of five scenes. Out went the parents, as well as Friar Laurence, Mercutio and the Nurse. As in his earlier Francesca da Rimini the essence of the work lies in three love duets of illicit nocturnal passion and morbidly destructive abandon, rather than youthful love, giving full expression to Zandonai's highly wrought Late Romantic Style, tempered by Impressionism and archaism.
The director Guy Montavon sets the work in the composer's own lifetime, opening in in a co-educational boarding school. The action begins in a boys' classroom, on whose walls are chalked lines from Shakespeare, with the pupils at rows of desks clad in schoolwear, flannel shorts and ties.
In this teenage world, fighting erupts between the rival Montagues and Capulet gangs, incited by a shadowy older man Tebaldo , procurer of illicit alcohol and willing girls. Text books are flung, shorts drop, skirts lifted, penknives drawn. Romeo arrives like a prim school prefect and peace is temporarily restored with the help of the janitor. A ravishing nocturnal intermezzo leads to the balcony scene, a staircase serving duty, and it is apparent that Romeo and the girlish Giulietta, in blouse and spectacles, are no strangers.
Though the producer has them coyly singing from behind desks, inhibitions soon vanish in a torrid duet. Uniforms are stripped off, and swearing love-in-death like a teen Tristan and Isolde, they mark their union by slicing and binding their wrists in a bloody bond. Act 2 moves to the girls' dormitory and it is here that the abbreviated plot and concept begin to raise difficulties.
Tebaldo's status as an older relative of Giulietta, in a borderline abusive relationship, begs the question as to his role in the school. He tells her she is to be married off, but she retorts she is already married to Romeo, who contrives to slip into her iron bedstead.