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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Roméo et Juliette

Hei-Kyung Hong will sing Juliette.
Photo © The Metropolitan Opera
Charles Gounod followed up the smash success of Faust with this ultra-romantic setting of William Shakespeare's tragedy. This is one of the most succesful operatic settings of a Shakespeare play. By paring down the drama and focusing on the two young lovers, the librettist team of Jules Barbier and Michele Carré created the ideal vehicle for a tenor and soprano to sing gorgeous French love-music on the stage.

The best known highlight from this opera is "Je veux vivre", also known as Juliette's Waltz, a lilting showpiece for the diva that remains one of the best tunes Gounod ever wrote. This revival of the Met's 2005 production by Guy Joosten and Johannes Lieckar emphasizes the work's Renaissance origins, putting the lovers in cosmic settings including an onstage orrery and an astrolabe. This revival pairs tenor Piotr Beczala (fresh off his successful Rodolfo in La bohème) with Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. Ms. Hong has been announced as a last-minute replacement for Romanian diva Angela Gheorghiu, who cancelled the night before the premiere.

Did you know?
While this is the best known and most frequently performed version of the Shakespeare play, there have been 24 operatic adaptations of the play. Other notable versions include Hector Berlioz' symphonic drama of the same title, Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuletti e il Montecchi ("The Capulets and the Montagues") and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's musical West Side Story.

Recording Recommendations
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Emil Cooper (Sony, 1947, released 2010)
Roméo Jussi Björling
Juliette: Bidú Sayão
Friar Laurence: Nicola Moscena
Mercutio: John Brownlee
Fans of French opera have long known about this famous Feb. 1, 1947 broadcast recording which paired Swedish super-tenor Jussi Björling with Brazilian diva Bidú Sayão. And it's been available before on the German label Cantus. But this classic set, recorded from the stage of the old opera house is a welcome arrival in the catalogue. It captures the young Mr. Björling at his most ardent, soaring to new heights in Romeo's romantic music. He is well-paired with Ms. Sayão and the set crackles with the energy of their interactions. Conducted by Emil Cooper, who specialized in the French repertory at the old Met.

Orchestra and Chorus of Toulouse cond. Michel Plasson (EMI Classics, 1998)
Roméo Roberto Alagna
Juliette: Angela Gheorghiu
Friar Laurence: Jose Van Dam
Mercutio: Simon Keenlyside

The so-called "love couple" made a number of opera recordings in the 1990s for EMI. Among them, this much-needed three-disc set of Roméo et Juliette. Roberto Alagna always sounds better when singing in French. Here, he tackles the role of Shakespeare's ardent young lover. His performance is all the more convincing because he is wooing Angela Gheorghiu, his wife. Their chemistry is what drives this set. Michel Plasson offers his usual, expert interpretation of Gounod and there is a fine supporting cast.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.