Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette, Met in HD Encore, Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, 24 January 2017.
Charles Gounod, 1818-93 was the leading French opera composers of his time. Of his fourteen works for stage, only two are remembered today – Faust and Roméo et Juliette .The latter received a lavish new production in December 2016 which was seen in HD transmission in Oxford on 24 January. The previous production was seen similarly in Oxford in 2007 with Anna Netrebko as Juliette and Roberto Alagna as Roméo and conducted by Placido Domingo. This new production originated at La Scala, Milan and was presented at the Salzburg Festival.
Gounod follows Shakespeare closely, with some economies and changes of emphasis to suit the telling of the story in operatic form. Thus, after a prologue for chorus reviewing the story we go straight into the Capulet’s masked ball marking Juliet’s birthday, with a malevolent Tybalt as master of ceremonies. Roméo enters with a party of gate-crashing Montagues and falls for Juliet, leading to the garden scene in Act II. In the first scene of Act III they are wed by Friar Lawrence, In this new production by Bartlett Sher this is played without a break up to the interval. The single set by Michael Yeargen serves as the Capulet’s ballroom, the courtyard with Juliette’s balcony and the interior of Frère Laurent’s cell. During the overture, he scene is set with an appropriate atmosphere of foreboding, the guests gradually assemble, some with masks, in heavy costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. During the intermission the cinema audience is introduced to the cast members by Ailyn Pérez.
In this production, the second part begins in the middle of Act III, it’s natural place. Disaster strikes with the confrontation in which Tybalt kills Mercutio and is himself killed by Roméo. In the opera the fight arises by Mercutio coming to the help of Roméo’s page, Stéphano (a trouser role – replacing Balthasar of the play) who has provoked the Capulets to distract them from Roméo’s departure. Roméo is banished. In order to avoid a forced marriage to Count Pâris, Juliette takes a sleeping draught provided by Laurent. Roméo returns and thinking her dead takes poison. Juliette awakens and, finding him dying, stabs herself so the they may die operatically in each-other’s arms. The opera ends , not, as in the play, with the plea for reconciliation of Montague and Capulet but in a scene reminiscent of BBC’s Silent Witness.
The staging provided a perfect background for the enactment of the drama. Much has been made of the chemistry between Vittorio Grigolo who plays Roméo and Diana Damrau, Juliette. There is no doubt that their scenes together are the core of this powerful rendering of the story. But it is the creation of the character of Juliette by Damrau which is the abiding memory. From her first appearance, before she meets Roméo, she captures the looks and gestures of the impetuous young teenager. Then she experiences love for the first time, leading on to her devastation at discovering who it is she has fallen for. It is a wonderful performance, every detail exactly right. (I must confess I had not expected such a performance. Of her Gilda in The Met’s 2013 production of Rigoletto I wrote ‘Diana Damrau was totally miscast as Gilda. Matronly in appearance, she completely failed to represent herself as a lovelorn teenager’!. Here she is transformed.)
Grigolo is also a convincing male adolescent, recklessly slaying Tybalt without thought for the consequences.
There is a strong supporting cast both vocally and dramatically: an old friend Diana Montague plays the Nurse, and Mikhail Petrenko is Frère Laurent. Laurent Naouri impresses as Capulet and Virginia Griffiths as Stéphano. But it must be said that the minor roles are not so well delineated as in the 2007 production. The one disappointment is the Mercutio of Elliot Madore, played as an uncouth tearaway. The Tybalt of Diego Silva does not stand out from the crowd as he should.
Musically, the performance was superb under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. From the opening chorus, the orchestral sound was rich and exciting from beginning to end. The duets between the lovers and their solos were beautifully sung (the effect enhanced by the ‘chemistry’).
Gounod’s version of Shakespeare, in this performance, is at least as moving as the original, a demonstration of the power of opera.