David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Metropolitan Opera's New 'Romeo et Juliette'
Sunday, January 01, 2017 - 08:01 PM
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.