Review: Metropolitan Opera's New 'Romeo et Juliette'

Sunday, January 01, 2017 - 08:01 PM

Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo, Diana Damrau as Juliette, and Mikhail Petrenko as Frère Laurent in Gounod's 'Roméo et Juliette'. (Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Romeo et Juliette might seem like a safe choice with its Shakespeare-based characters and traditional, nothing-symbolic Bartlett Sher production. But what unfolded at the New Year's Eve opening may have been the risk of the season, its outcome being more successful than not.

The Charles Gounod score is something of a curio from 1867 France that hasn't the strength to carry any weak links among performers, as do the more sturdy Puccini operas. Any neutral factors need to work in favor of this grand but needy opera, which also requires theatricality of Shakespearean caliber if it's to be a worthy evening at the Met.
The soprano/tenor team of Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo under conductor Gianandrea Noseda at the Met would seem to be just the thing to shore up music that often is merely pretty. Discrete cuts were made, including the ballet that's obligatory in French opera but feels like a left turn to modern audiences. But as attractive as many elements were on Saturday, the second cast that takes over in March might be a better bet.

Not exactly new, the production debuted in 2008 in Salzburg, its Michael Yeargan set placing the opera in the 18th century for no apparent reason, other than to look antique and ornate, but having extra credibility for looking a tad shabby. Yes, real people live, drink, brawl and make a terrible mess of their lives in the world of this production, and Sher's highly physical staging shows characters making plot-turning decisions on their feet. The Deutsche Grammophon video from Salzburg is full of details not always fully realized at the Met. Still, interesting acting choices offset less-then-eventful music: Friar Lawrence, for one, is unusually prickly. Normally peripheral matters — such as swordsmanship — need crackle and most certainly did on Saturday thanks to fight director B.H. Barry.

A theatrically savvy couple, Damrau and Grigolo had wonderful moments of expressive phrasing though in a manner that's more Italianate than French. The fearless singing that benefits later scenes didn't quite happen, though Damrau showed how Juliette's great "Poison Aria" can be put across with willpower and strategy rather than vocal heft.

Curiously, Damrau's tone revealed Grigolo's relative lack of it on this particular night, with his fast vibrato obscuring the kind of core that one wants to hear in his voice. Wisely, he resisted compensating with theatrical extravagance, and seemed all the more charismatic for it. Among secondary roles, Laurent Naouri as Capulet delivered the most consistently good singing, giving the character particular authority through beautifully focused vocalism.

Though conductor Noseda rarely fails to make a strong connection with whatever he is conducting, Romeo et Juliette seemed intermittently limp under his leadership, even in the final chords of the tragic ending. One can't always hope for the extreme engagement of Yannick Nezet-Seguin in the Salzburg video. But more theatrical tension is possible than what Noseda generated.

So here's my recommendation: Damrau/Grigolo fans will want to at least catch the Jan. 21 HD simulcast, but as far as a visit to Lincoln Center is concerned, the March 3-18 cast with Pretty Yende and Stephen Costello (as the lovers) and Matthew Rose (as Friar Lawrence) could yield more Shakespearean heat under conductor Emmanuel Villaume. "Could" is the operative word — the opera is like a souffle that doesn't always rise.



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Comments [9]

Leslie from NYC

Just reading this after discussing tonight's R &J with my singer friend, who saw this cast's opening night.
I shall have to find time to read more of your blogs. I also wish I had read this before attending tonight's performance.We three, you, my professional singer friend, and I seem to agree.
My strength is the visual arts, so I look at the performances differently from someone versed only in the singer's art. I did sing. I do know the craft. Often I sit there, and while entranced and caught up in this highest and most complicated of the arts, am , at the same time in complete AWE of what, even the lowliest of these opera singers brings to the stage for my pleasure. That does not mean I have to like them all, or like what they are bringing to a performance, as I ecpressed tonight. While,admiring much of the visual tonight, and LOVING the beginning moments, despite ushers seating latecomers during this most beautiful music, I felt thd kack of a,well-crafted work, and wondered whether the principles had received direction from the creators. Definitely not what I expect from The Met.

Mar. 09 2017 01:46 AM
Mary Lamm

Unlike previous commenters, this is the first time I have seen a production of Romeo and Juliette so I have no other to compare it to. Hey, I'm just a rube from the sticks but, for me, it was absolutely thrilling. I loved the chemistry between the two leads and their voices were superb. Set, smet...who cares when you have such superior voices on stage in this production. For me, everything else was of little importance. As far as I was concerned, it was very "dynamic"!

Jan. 21 2017 07:43 PM

@Joey Angels,
"At times, the staging was absurd."

And that's why I attend very few productions at the Met. While I can usually count on great musicality, I don't feel like fighting absurdity.


Jan. 06 2017 12:05 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

There is some gorgeous music in this one. The balcony scene ends with Romeo singing May the breeze bring you a kiss. I think that is what he sings.

Jan. 05 2017 12:44 PM
Joey Angels from Brooklyn, NY

I had the pleasure of attending the Met's January 4th performance of Romeo et Juliette. The singing moved me. Grigolo and Damrau were and are incredible. The scenery was classical. At times, the staging was absurd. Unfortunately, stage designers insist on creating 'uni-sets'. As a result, we lost the entire 'wedding night' feel and the eeriness of the 'tomb". Mr. Sher insists on this 'uni-set' approach. Despite all of that, there was still a classical feel to the story even in 18th Century Verona. (It could have been worse. The darling that designed and directed the new 'Cav/Pag' could have done this production.)

Ignoring the present to constantly dwell on the past is like driving an automobile constantly looking in the rear view mirror. Sooner or later, you're going to have an accident. Today's singers are talented, as were the singers of 25 years ago, 50 years, 100 years ago. Give me Domingo any day of the week, when he was in voice. Today, give me Alagna, Cura, Grigolo, and Alvarez. I'll keep the list to tenors. I'll be here for hours if I start on my favorite sopranos.

Jan. 05 2017 01:24 AM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

For Edward D., with respect to NYT reviews of Met Opera productions, you have to take things with a grain of salt particularly if the reviewer is Anthony Tommasini, which is the case with this R&J production. For whatever reason, Tommasini tends to be deferential/'benefit of the doubt' in his Met Opera reviews, almost as if he's afraid to say anything bad about the Met. Or when he does venture any critical brickbats, it's with the softest of velvet gloves (to mix metaphors very badly here). I don't know why, but from reading his Met Opera reviews over the years, that's his style. Martin Bernheimer of the 'Financial Times' is the polar opposite in his reviews, as a counterweight. There's nothing wrong with different people having their different perspectives, to be sure.

Jan. 04 2017 12:04 PM
JAZ from New York

This being a favorite opera of mine, I was so looking forward to seeing/hearing it but was greatly disappointed overall. The flavor of the French language was lost, the set was dull and dark and, for me, the whole production lacked contrast, being neither dynamic nor colorful. On the positive side, the Met Chorus was excellent as always, and Vittorio Grigolo provided some lovely moments but perhaps would have been better served in a different production. The 2007 Met Opera production was outstanding in all respects and I found myself wishing it back.

Jan. 02 2017 04:43 PM
Edward Druckman

It is interesting how different this review is from the NY Times. I know you both
saw the production on the same night.

Jan. 02 2017 02:47 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I would tend to agree that the second cast would be more to the liking of those to whom what they hear is more important that what they see, --- perish "updatings" --- primarily because I'm not a fan of Mr. Grigolo's. Each to his own. The French style is certainly very elusive today, but when the Met's matine'e broadcast of it is on, I'll be listening to one of the milestone recordings, with Franco Corelli and Mirella Freni with the Paris Opera forces conducted by Alain Lombard, ( whose performances with Franco Corelli and Judith Blegen thrilled me when the Met's 1974 broadcast season opened with the aforementioned) or the 1947 Met performance with Jussi Bjo"rling and Bidu Saya~o conducted by Emil Cooper. A breathtakingly beautiful and traditional 14th Century Verona staging is on the video of the Covent Garden's 1994 production with Roberto Alagna and Leontina Vaduva with Charles Mackerras conducting. I'm one who loves the entire opera, but admittedly, I've never heard the Ballet and the concerted piece, the Epithalamium, that's part of the wedding procession.

Jan. 02 2017 06:29 AM

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