When Bartlett Sher nails it, he really nails it. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is passionate with the urgency of youth, it’s sexy, short-tempered and quickly violent, a world parents, the caregivers and the pious view with alarm. Much like today. Yet the violence stems from lingering tribal wounds, the turf wars of the previous generations hanging like albatrosses around the necks of their offspring. Again, sound familiar?
The centerpieces of the cast of this Roméo et Juliette are Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau. Accomplished artists, they have scored high marks in other repertories, but, reminiscent of their hot Manon in the spring of 2015, the frisson is on stage at the Met once again in another French opera romance!
Critics may complain that Mr. Grigolo doesn’t have the requisite French timbre for Roméo, but, as in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Manon (and most likely in Massenet’s Werther yet to come in February), Grigolo has youth, ardor, and a total commitment to each moment of drama unfolding before our eyes and ears. Plus he is paired with Diana Damrau, a soprano who partners him with the same utter abandon. She, too, delivers an impassioned, youthful character. As I say, the frisson is back. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which either Isolde or Tristan or both are on stage every curtain-up moment of the evening, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is more than just one long duet between the lovers. But when they’re on stage it should be convincing. I’m convinced.
A typical Bartlett Sher production is perpetually moving, emotionally moving certainly, but also behaviorally. He likes flow. His Roméo and his Juliette have the flow, but so do all of the others on stage. On Team Montague, Mercutio is given a vivid portrait by Elliot Madore, Stéphano is portrayed in zesty voice by Virginie Verrez, and the supportive Benvolio is sung by Tony Stevenson. Mercutio just itches for the duel until his accidental death. I admire his boundless swagger.
But the fray is never far away: Team Capulet has the youthful hotheads Tybalt, sung by Diego Silva, and Grégorio, sung by Jeongcheol Cha. They push a lot of buttons too. The duels are fast and furious when they happen, well choreographed by B. H. Barry; Chase Brock has created colorful festivities and fluid dance sequences which seem to happen spontaneously and as quickly disperse.
Father Capulet himself, taken by the esteemed Lauren Naouri, is a kind, proud father to his Juliette, but he misses all of her nonverbal cues through the business of her marriage to the wannabe suitor Pâris, sung by David Crawford. On the support side of Juliette’s rebellion are the excellent mezzo Diana Montague as Gertrude (brava!) and Frère Laurant, portrayed by Mikhail Petrenko; the Duke of Verona is Oren Gradus.
I have admired everything Gianandrea Noseda has conducted at the Met; this Roméo is no exception. His pays attention to orchestra detail without any loss of momentum; he makes Gounod’s score prominent without overwhelming his singers. Quite admirable! Bravo!
Against the flow of the principals and the mob, Sher adds gravity by a slowly entering chorus during the solemn Prologue and by the various on-lookers surrounding subsequent events on the floor and on the balconies above. They remind us that beneath a veneer of merrymaking lies the weight of the human condition. The production gains much impact by the update to the 18th century, particularly with the wonderful costumes designed by Catherine Zuber, pleasing as much for their colors as for their style. Beautiful and effective.
Gravity is enhanced too by the towering dark unit set designed by Michael Yeargan with lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton. The Met’s staging of Sher’s Roméo et Juliette is closer to the production’s La Scala run, but the original conception (also Zuber, Yeargan, and Tipton) was in the Felsenreitschule at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. There a larger, especially wider stage forced a lot of directorial choices, especially with regard to the interior, intimate scenes, Frère Laurant’s Cell, the Bedroom and Tomb to name three. Here these are played on same city square, walled by the large balconied structures. There is an exit alley to the left. Hey, Juliette needs a balcony, right? At the Met, check! But not in Salzburg. Does the happy couple need a nuptial bed though? Apparently not! Yeargan appropriately creates these spaces with quickly inserted props, a crucifix here, a large white sheet floating down from above. The sheet will sow the confusion that leaves Mercutio vulnerable to Tybalt’s blade; the sheet also defines the lovers’ bed and serves as her shroud. Is this a problem?
Two points are appropriate: first, the music and the drama move seamlessly in Sher’s Roméo et Juliette, as they do in most of his other productions. This is a good thing: dimly lit curtain down “is this the intermission, dear?” pauses for scene changes in grand opera are a real buzz kill. What’s more, the solution here for Roméo is far better than the relatively weak sliding plexiglass walls for Sher/Yeargan’s Otello of last season. Roméo moves seamlessly, which is a good thing. Then second, one who is properly focused on the drama and the music will soon filter out the lack of interior sets, especially so with the aid of the narrow focus of a high definition telecast.
Feast on the singers; the opera is the thing, to borrow from Shakespeare.
Reviewed performance: January 10, 2017
Photos: Ken Howard; La Scala production photo by Brescia/Armisano.
It’s a must-see event. Enjoy! Brave the cold; get the new year off to a great start!