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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Opera Review: It's Still the Same Old Story

The Met's new Roméo et Juliette is handsome but unnecessary.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Star-crossed and Bible black: Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau are Roméo et Juliette.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
In Second Empire France, the libretto-writing team of Julies Barbier and Michael Carré were the go-to guys for adapting great literature for the operatic stage. They set Faust (for Charles Gounod) and Hamlet (for Ambroise Thomas) with questionable results. However, their cut-down Roméo et Juliette (with music by Gounod) remains one of their definite successes. At the Metropolitan Opera of the 21st century, Bartlett Sher serves much the same function. On Wednesday night, Peter Gelb's director of choice was once more at the helm of this new production of Romeo et Juliette, his seventh show at the Met.

This staging is very much in the Gelb-era aesthetic, designed not for the devotees in the opera house but for those omnipresent Live in HD cameras. (Five of those cameras were rolling at Tuesday night's performance, a dry run for the broadcast, filming a "cover" performance in case something goes awry on Saturday afternoon.) Here, fair Verona is a towering, dull-gray shallow set, populated by  bright carnival costumes that "pop" on the movie screen. From the opening image, a rainbow of elaborately dressed "Veronese" choristers arrayed across the lip of the Met stage, the whole exercise seemed at once familiar and academic: Shakespeare by a very conservative book.

This is the second new production of Roméo et Juliette to take the Met stage in this young century, and one wonders if another version was a necessary use of the Met's budget. The previous production by director Guy Joosten was perfectly serviceable. It featured an imaginative series of visuals that incorporated astronomical instruments, hermetic symbolism and a spectacular "floating" bed for the fourth act duet. Mr. Sher's staging lacks that pizzaz. Most of the action taking place on a flat dais downstage. When four costumed stagehands came on to spread a sheet over this hard surface for the love scene in Act IV, it was hard not to feel sympathy for the young lovers being forced to "sleep" on the floor. (Couldn't they have four burly costumed supernumeraries carry in a wedding bed?)

Nuptual accommodations aside, Gounod's opera requires a great pair of singers, preferably good looking and with some onstage chemistry for the many duets. Luckily, this staging boasts such a team, reuniting Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau as the star-crossed lovers doomed to an early death at the end of Act V. Together these artists save this show. Ms. Damrau channeled a manic energy to play the flighty Juliet, adding warmer tones to her silvery instrument as her love affair with Romeo blossomed. She rose to great heights of interpretation in the love duet, the potion scene and the chilling, deadly finale in the tomb.

Mr. Grigolo burst into the stodgy Capulet masquerade ball with the energy of a teenage boy, singing sweetly in the first act. He was at his kinetic best in the balcony scene, literally climbing the walls of this gigantic set as if he had been bit by a radioactive spider before approaching Juliette's window. In the Act III duel with Tybalt, he found the dark, heroic color in his instrument and stayed with it for the rest of the night. He was simply phenomenal in the tomb scene, bringing soul and genuine heartbreak to Gounod's arching melodies.

This was the production that took the boards at the Met on New Year's Eve of 2016, and it is packed with a strong supporting cast. Baritone Elliot Madore  a compelling Mercutio (taking the "Queen Mab" aria at a very fast tempo indeed) and Mikhail Petrenko as the helpful Frére Laurent. Tenor Diego Silva was a fine, arrogant Tybalt and the wonderfully named Diana Montague (!) made that ancient family proud as the Nurse. Finally, soprano Virginie Verrez displayed a pleasing tone and coloratura as the innocent Montague page Stepháno, who triggers the big sword fight in the third act.

About that sword fight: Gounod and his librettists knew how to structure an opera, and their third act is a masterpiece. It contrasts the wedding of Romeo and Juliet with the street violence that sets up the tragedy at the opera's end. However, in recent years of the Peter Gelb era, having a single intermission has become the rule. As a result, the third act was bluntly interrupted, ruining the arch of the drama and the contrast between love-music and senseless violence that is the whole point of Shakespeare's play. Given their respective roles as a theatrical impresario and an award-winning director of Shakespeare's plays, Mr. Gelb and Mr. Sher should know better.

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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.