Star singers, star cross’d lovers
Charles Gounod : Roméo et Juliette
Rolando Villazòn (Roméo), Anna Netrebko (Juliette), Marc Barrard (Mercutio), Florian Làconi (Tybalt), Reinhard Hagen (Frère Laurent), Simone Alberghini (Capulet), Anne-Maria Panzarella (Stephano), Suzanna Guzmàn (the nurse), Michael Gallup (Duke of Verona), David Babinet (Count Paris), Gregorio Gonzàlez (Gregorio), Peter Nathan Foltz (Benvolio), Jinyoung Jang (Frère Jean).
Ian Judge (director), John Gunter (set designer), Tim Goodchild (costumes).
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus,
Frédéric Chaslin (conductor).
Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette enjoyed a dazzling première at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1867 and was played for one hundred nights in a row. Since then, it has always been popular in France, but less so abroad where it was overshadowed by Faust. Yet Gounod considered Roméo et Juliette, along with La Reine de Saba, his best operas. Solemn and exuberant at the same time, it is a succession of enchanting melodies and passionate, dramatic duets.
In the interest of operatic conciseness, the story line somewhat departs from Shakespeare’s play, discarding anything that is not directly centered on the two protagonists. Further, the librettists (Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) altered the death scene – the ultimate lèse majesté crime according to the fans of the illustrious playwright - with Juliet awaking before Romeo’s death, thus allowing the opera to end with a dramatic duet.
With seven scenes grouped in five acts, each set in a different place, Roméo et Juliette is a technical nightmare. The challenge is intelligently overcome by production director Ian Judge – a Shakespeare veteran - and designer John Gunter who imagined a three-tiered wrought-iron structure in the style of Pavillon Baltard representing the houses of the Capulets and Montagues. The set, incongruous at first, moves rapidly – alas, not silently - allowing effective transitions between scenes. Originally set in Renaissance Verona, the action has been transposed to the French Second Empire with men dressed in long frock coats and sashed, epauletted uniforms, and women wearing rich, huge hooped skirts.
This new production uses the Choudens (via Kalmus) orchestra score and parts. Juliette’s frequently omitted “Potion” aria “Dieu! Quel frisson court dans mes veines…” is included, as is her dramatic “Amour, ranime mon courage…” (Act 4). A selection from Gounod’s ballet music for Roméo et Juliette replaces the “Nuptial Procession,” and the rarely heard “Epithalamium” (nuptial hymn) ensemble is omitted.
Thirty-two year old Rolando Villazòn is a “luxury” Romeo: the voice is superb and effortless in the high register, the timbre radiant, the line elegant and never stretched. This was particularly true of his cavatina “Ah! lève-toi soleil…” in act 1 where Villazòn, alternately elegiac and sensuous, combined intensity and lyricism.
Anna Netrebko’s clarity of voice and wide range of colors are simply beautiful. After a triumphal Lucia here in 2003, the Russian soprano returns to LA Opera for a memorable Juliette: flirtatious in her valse-ariette “Je veux vivre...”, innocent and smitten when she meets Romeo, she reaches climatic poignancy in the final duet.
The pair works wonderfully: they are charming, young, energetic, ardent, and we immediately fall for them. At curtain call, they are still beaming and bouncing, fresh and endearing as ever with the whole house on their feet.
Let us hope that they will be brought together again in other operas (Manon?)
All supporting roles are excellent: Florian Làconi (Tybalt), Simone Alberghini (Capulet), Michael Gallup (Duc de Vérone), David Babinet (Comte Paris), Gregorio Gonzàlez (Gregorio), Peter Nathan Foltz (Benvolio), Jinyoung Jan (Frère Jean), Suzanna Guzmàn (Nurse), with a special mention to French baritone Marc Barrard as Mercutio who beautifully sang the not-so-easy “Ballade de la reine Mab” in act 1, to Reinhard Hagen’s imposing Frère Laurent, and to Anna-Maria Panzella as Stephano.
French maestro Frédéric Chaslin, making his début with Los Angeles Opera, knows his Gounod. His reading of the score is firm and he conducts the wonderful Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus with a genuine sense of French style.
After a disappointing Aida in January, the Los Angeles Opera last night offered a true combination of charm and exceptional talent to an ecstatic audience.