Romeo et Juliette

The juxtaposition of violence and love is at the heart of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and successful adaptations of Shakespeare's play tend to have the same mixing of the most shocking violence with the tenderness of young love. Prokofiev's ballet score, West Side Story, Franco Zefferelli and Baz Lurhmann's movies, all have this quality. Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette was one of the most popular operas in the 19th century, and the list of great Romeos and Juliettes is a long and storied one. But I think the reason why the opera fell out of favor is that Gounod tilts the focus of the story too much towards the LOVE LOVE LOVE side. The violence between the Capulets and Montague's is barely touched upon except for the pivotal scene of Mercutio's death, and Juliet's combative, overbearing parents are also a non-entity in Gounod's opera (Juliet's mother doesn't even exist for Gounod). The arias and love duets between the star-crossed lovers are stunningly beautiful, but the overall effect of the opera can be saccharine.

For the opera to work, I think one needs exceptional voices and a certain amount of glamor and romantic abandon in the title roles. The last time I saw the opera, it was in 2007, and the teen lovers were Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. Both of them had flaws in their vocal performance, but they were exciting, sensual performers who threw themselves into the roles of teenage lovers. It wasn't that they looked 13 (they didn't), it's that they seemed to believe they were 13 and falling in love for the first time. Last night the Metropolitan Opera revived Gounod's opera in a professional but somewhat dull performance, that did not transport me into Gounod's lush, romantic vision of Shakespeare's play.

Guy Joosten's production consists of a unit set which is a circular turntable that depicts some Renaissance-style astronomy. (Get it? Star-crossed.) The back of the stage has a wood panel that opens up to set the scene, and there are colorful period-style costumes, as well as a floating bed for the lovers. It's a nice, lavish, romantic production that suits Gounod's somewhat over-romanticized, over-lavish adaptation. I've heard though that singers don't like the production, and I can understand why. The circular turntable has a steep rake that sometimes makes for some awkward blocking. And the Juliette in the premiere run, Natalie Dessay, famously fell out of the floating bed. There are also moments when the stage directions seem a direct contrast to the libretto. For instance, Mercutio angrily asks Romeo why he "interfered" in the fight with Tybalt, an event which led to Tybalt giving Mercutio the fatal wound. But in this production, Romeo is a bystander in the Tybalt-Mercutio duel the entire time, so Mercutio's accusation is a big "huh?" moment. The production also is determined to make every duet between the star-crossed lovers extremely moonlit, which means a dark, bluish lighting whenever the two are singing. But in the Act IV duet "Nuit d'hymenee" it's dawn, and time for Romeo to leave for exile, which makes the moonlight, bluish lighting against the floating backdrop less appropriate.

The floating bed

I have to say that I have tremendous respect for Hei-Kyung Hong, who jumped in last minute for Angela Gheorghiu. The Romanian diva canceled all her performances of Juliette, in reasons that are yet unclear, and Hong, who is 51 years old and the mother of three children, is now singing all scheduled performances of Romeo et Juliette. Hong was a favorite house soprano in the Volpe era, but it has been several years since I've actually heard her. She took some time to warm up -- at first I was dismayed at how thin, shrill, and hollow her voice sounded. The waltz "Je veux vivre" was marred by a smudged trill, some shrieked high notes, and vocal hesitancy that made the waltz melody trite and sing-songish. But by the long balcony duet, her voice was warm and round, and she was able to keep pace with this very long role. She sang the very often cut Potion Aria and by then I was surprised to hear how big and enveloping Hong's lyric soprano sounded. If her timbre isn't all that distinctive, it's pleasing to the ears. She had a dangerous-looking fall off a platform after Juliette takes the potion, and looked like she could have hurt herself, but gamely soldiered onwards. She also has kept her figure trim, and if she doesn't look 13, she doesn't look matronly either. She's a somewhat reserved presence onstage, and doesn't really inhabit the role of the rebellious and highly sexed teen, but then again Gounod's Juliette is somewhat prim, proper, and Victorian reworking of Shakespeare's headstrong heroine. So to this pro and trouper, I say brava.

I had more of a problem with Piotr Beczala. Most of the most beautiful, ardent music in the opera belongs to the tenor. Beczala walked onstage wearing the largest Dynasty-era shoulder pads in the world, but he does look the part, being handsome in a clean-cut, boyish kind of way. But where was the passion, the ardency? This Romeo barely looked at his Juliette all night. He was unable to make certain gestures, like reaching for Juliettte's hand in the balcony, or convulsing from the poison in the Tomb Scene convincing or heartrending. Another problem is his timbre -- it's somewhat slender and dry in sound, and lacks warmth. I noticed this last year when I saw him in La Boheme -- where the voice should bloom, it narrows. But a Rodolfo can get away with being a lean lyric tenor. I feel that with Romeo a more heroic, spinto sound is ideal. His top notes sound tight and constricted. "Ah leve-toi soleil" was fine, but again, the lack of warmth in his timbre was a problem. At the end of Act III, he decided to go for an unwritten high C, and he cracked terribly. One cracked note doesn't make or break a performance, but it was an unfortunate gamble that didn't pay off.

This sounds harsh but James Morris at this time should hang it up. He is now almost inaudible in the lower register, and has a large wobble whenever he tries to sustain a note. The role of Frere Laurent is not a long one, but he does play an important part in the story, and if he can't give a vocally acceptable Frere Laurent, he ... shouldn't be singing onstage anymore. His vocal estate was a stark contrast to some other vets in the cast, like Dwayne Croft (Capulet), Wendy White (Gertrude), and the Juliette herself, all of whom had voices that sounded fresh and audible.

Placido Domingo was in the pit and I know that he's gotten a lot of flack as a conductor. He could have brought more shimmering beauty out of the orchestra in the almost Wagnerian postludes that end both Act Two and the finale of the opera, but I thought overall he did no harm.

Finally, maybe I didn't enjoy this performance of Romeo et Juliette as much as I enjoyed the performance in 2007 because of a state of mind. In 2007 I had finally moved back to NYC, and the Romeo was the first performance I attended after my move back to NY. I was excited to hear live opera again, excited to see Netrebko live for the first time, just flat out happier. Yesterday I was tired and not in a particularly good mood, and the four love duets seemed overlong and cheesy. Beczala and Hong, for all their attributes, weren't able to sweep me away and make me believe in star-crossed love.

Meanwhile, here's a clip of Alagna and Netrebko in the Tomb Scene. Enjoy!


  1. I am so happy for Roberto that he has gotten past the vocal problems that are audible here, as you indicated. This season I was very impressed with his work. But you are also correct that these two really grab your emotions and give them a good workout, which is what this opera must be all about -- they were heartbreaking.

  2. I think Roberto went through a rough patch vocally, but he's always been a very intense actor onstage. Like offstage he looks middle-aged, and his voice on recordings sounds harsh, but I admire how he gets through every role on seeming sheer will. He's just a very generous artist who gives it his all in every performance, and I think that's what this opera needs. This is one opera where the tenor has the much better role than the soprano.

  3. This is phoenix & i'm not that anonymous, but it's easier to sign in as anonymous than go through the hoops to get on as phoenix.
    Just got through listening to the second performance of Romeo. Hong sang technically better but Domingo's conducting sagged even more than at the 1st performance. Morris was better. He was able to shape his phrases to greater effect. Beczala didn't crack (shredded a tiny bit here and there, but it sounded dramatic and not offensive). His vocal weight in the role TONIGHT sounded perfect, particularly with Hong, who sang with a more transluscent tone, not quite as rich and lusicious as in the 1st performance but without any pitch or tempii problems. I guess Domingo made it easier for them, but harder for us.
    -- Glad you are keeping your blog up. You are amazing! Best wishes!

  4. Thanks phoenix, I didn't listen to tonight's performance, but I'll trust you. Maybe it was opening night nerves on the part of Beczala.

  5. You know I was just thinking about another Romeo Domingo conducted many years ago (I think in the early 1980's) with Cecilia Gasdia as Juliette & Alfredo Kraus as Romeo. They broadcast it once in awhile on Sirius. I remember the first time I heard it and, believe it or not, it was full of verve & vigor, not the droopy mess we're getting from Domingo this season with this opera. Perhaps he had more rehearsal back in those days, I don't know. The 1980's broadcast was the last of 4 or 5 performances in a run, so with practice maybe he was able to whisk things up a bit. I don't know. I'll try that last Sirius broadcast week after next and see if Domingo puts any more life into that one. I really don't like that many operas (or signers, for that matter), so when an opera & cast like this comes along, I pay attention.

  6. What I don't get is why they can't try something new and get another conductor for R&J. It's definitely weird that at the Met this opera has become the private domain of Domingo.

    Also, this "following the singers" almost to the point of non-conducting happened this year too with Armiliato and Tosca. At one point I thought Visse d'arte had become a vocalise exercise. It might be singer-friendly, but it can make for some very dull music.


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