By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK — The pre-dinner entertainment at the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve gala ($50,000 for a table of 10) was Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, not as popular as the composer’s Faust, but certainly possessing a sumptuously colored score and a tragic tale for the ages. New to the Met, the Bartlett Sher production premiered at the 2008 Salzburg Festival and wended its way to La Scala and the Lyric Opera of Chicago before landing in New York.
Sher, a Tony Award–winning director whose Broadway staging of Fiddler on the Roof just played its last gasp, first came to the Met early in general manager Peter Gelb’s reign with Il barbiere di Siviglia, and has since mounted several productions, with varying success.
This one can be viewed on the positive side, its single-set (18th-century Verona) approach as economical as Shakespeare’s plot is condensed by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. As one clever commentator has put it, Gounod’s version of the Shakespeare tragedy can be boiled down to “ball, balcony, bed, tomb,” with the last expanded so the two lovers can squeeze in the final of four duets.
Much has been made by the local media of the chemistry between the two leads, last seen together at the Met in Manon in 2015. Visually, Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and German soprano Diana Damrau do make a more believable pairing than most on the opera stage, he shimmying up the balcony pillar to touch her outstretched hand, she enveloping him in her bed clothes during their wedding-night maneuvers. But Grigolo, who apparently missed a number of rehearsals, showed little variation in his vocal approach, and failed to be an equal partner in the duets and even in the third-act ensemble piece, “Dieu qui fis l’homme à ton image,” with Frère Laurent (Mikhail Petrenko) and Gertrude (Diana Montague). He also tended to overwhelm Damrau when she wasn’t singing above the staff.
His performance was all the more frustrating because, in those moments when he did choose to show a little sensitivity, his sound could be quite appealing, sensuous, even.
Damrau, on the other hand, was suitably varied in her portrayal, evolving effectively from carefree teenager in Act 1 to suicidal lover by Act 5. One of her finest moments occurred in the opening ball scene, when she happily poo-poos the idea of marriage in the lilting “Je veux vivre.” Here the voice was an ideal match for the lightness of mood, the coloratura tossed off like so much fluff, with tempo liberties beautifully met by conductor Gianandrea Noseda and his orchestra of champions in the pit. As the evening wore on, Damreau’s easy lyricism became more labored, especially against Grigolo’s overwrought theatricality.
That said, the two carried the performance handsomely, appropriate standard bearers for a large cast. The Met chorus, ever solid under Donald Palumbo’s direction, opened the performance, arriving on stage and posing as so many set pieces in Catherine Zuber’s richly colored frocks. As party guests in kooky headpieces or as local villagers, the choristers were often called upon to dress Michael Yeargan’s otherwise barren set, a tall, hulking gray structure with assorted archways, balconies, and parapets. A slightly raised platform centerstage served alternately as dance floor for the ball, village square, Frère Laurent’s cell and, covered in billowy white satin, the lovers’ bed.
The five acts were divided in two, with the intermission taking place after the wedding in Laurent’s cell. Creating a gay, over-the-top ballroom scene, an intimate bedroom, a village square, or a monk’s chambers all within the same unit set was a challenge seamlessly met via Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and some subtly arriving set pieces. Most impressive of all was the use of the great wide sheath of white silk that served as a canopy over the village square during the duels and then showed up again draped over the center platform as playing area for the bedroom scene. It subsequently served as wedding gown for Juliette’s dreaded nuptials to Count Paris and, after she collapses, as burial shroud for her visit to the crypt.
If the Met deserves credit for economy of scale in production values, there was no scrimping in the casting department. Making his house debut, in the role of Tybalt, tenor Diego Silva was vibrant of tone and of swordsmanship, under the watchful training of fight director B. H. Barry. Among the evening’s delights was Elliot Madore in the role of Mercutio, also an agile swordsman but more importantly an articulate teller of the Act 1 ballad “Mab, reine des mensonges,” delivered with a notable fluidity of line. Madore is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, also represented on this occasion by current member Virginie Verrez, who brought a quick vibrato and youthful energy to the trouser role of Roméo’s page, Stéphano.
As Gertrude, Diana Montague was flexible of voice and presence, appropriately feisty with the Capulet boys or sympathetic to her charge’s woes of ill-fated love across enemy lines. Laurent Naouri maintained a stiff nobility as Capulet and Petrenko’s easy sonorousness as Frère Laurent was an appealing foil to the orchestra’s evolving harmonies during his Act IV ministrations to Juliette. The Met Orchestra was responsive to a fault; in a score that can teeter on treacly, Noseda maintained an exquisite balance, staying just on the right side of taut, but never losing a sense of bloom.
Roméo et Juliette will be seen live in HD in movie theaters on Jan. 21
Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com.