Composer: Charles Gounod
Librettist: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Producer/Director: Bartlett Sher
Diana Damrau: Juliette
Vittorio Grigolo: Roméo
Laurent Naouri: Capulet
Frère Laurent: Mikail Petrenko
Diana Montague: Gertrude
Tybalt: Diego Silva
Elliot Madore: Mercutio
A few days after witnessing a modern-day doomed love story with the Prototype Festival’s gripping Breaking the Waves, I found myself at the Met for the original doomed love story of them all with Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette starring opera's latest dream duo consisting of German soprano Diana Damrau and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. I have to admit that I initially had slight misgivings about the opera being too sentimental and Diana Damrau being too old to play a teenager. But then I came to my senses thanks to my ever-reliable friend Nicole’s high praise of the opera, and my realization that Diane Damrau is not that old since she is after all younger than me, and of course a divine singer to boot.
In her determined quest of experiencing New York City's impressive art scene, my still newish French colleague and friend Vy An has been on a trail-blazing mission checking out all kinds of cultural institutions for the past couple of months, and she had been looking forward to her first foray into the Met. And we could not think of a better way to get her started than with two of the hottest singers of the moment putting their rightfully acclaimed talents to excellent use in a universally famous love story that, in this case, would even be sung in French. So that’s where we were on Tuesday evening, kind of spontaneously, in no less than decent orchestra seats.
The good thing about watching an opera inspired by a certified classic, be it a book, play or film, is that the plot being so well-known, no homework is generally required. Adapted many times over, including in West Side Story, which incidentally takes place exactly where the Met stands now, Roméo et Juliette can boast about being the gift that keeps on giving. And the tragedy of the original – and probably ultimate – pair of star-crossed lovers gave plenty again on Tuesday night.
In an irrefutable proof that I should just shut up when I don’t know what I am talking about, Diana Damrau effortlessly conquered everybody in the house as soon as she stepped up on stage, a pure and luminous presence among the rambunctious ball crowd. Seeing her twirl around in a pretty yellow gown and flowing blond tresses, I had to readily acknowledge that she was a truly lovely Juliette, from carefree teenager eager to live life to the fullest to the tragic heroine whose only escape is death. However, if her demeanor was appropriately youthful, there was no doubt that the unfailingly exacting, delicate yet intense singing unquestionably came from the seasoned soprano that she is.
As for Vittorio Grigolo, he certainly seemed to have found a meaty part that fit him like a glove. His Roméo was temperamentally hot-blooded and physically restless, intrepidly climbing walls, breathlessly running around and fiercely engaging in the fateful sword fight. But obviously determined not to be just a pretty face and a non-stop fireball, he displayed an impressive singing range, which was not just burning ardor and unabashed romanticism, but achingly vulnerable and subtly introspective as well, convincingly conveying every emotion the youngster desperately in love was going through.
A lot has been written about the “sizzling chemistry” between those two inherently charismatic singers, and I am happy to confirm that it was there in spades on Tuesday night. So much so, in fact, that an audience member a few rows ahead of us could not resist filming their admittedly thrilling love duet after their first and only night together on his smartphone until an usher put an end to it. The culprit should not worry though, as chances are he will not forget this exceptional pairing anytime soon. And neither will the rest of us.
Even though the opera squarely focused on the leads, smaller roles were interpreted by top-notch singers as well such as bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, who embodied firm patriarchy as Juliette’s father, bass Mikhail Petrenko brought out the best of good-hearted Frère Laurent, mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was a dynamic Stéphano, mezzo-soprano Diana Montague endeared herself to all as Juliette’s strongly devoted nurse, and tenor Diego Silva as Tybalt and baritone Elliot Madore as Mercutio effectively portrayed the two ferocious enemies.
The production was solidly conventional, with a permanent set that included a three-floor Italian palace exterior, a town square and a Greek column, but it got the job done. Every time the action moved to a new place, a few things were altered. Some chairs were brought in for the opening scene, a few religious accessories made up the church, a sheet more or less inventively served several purposes – its puzzlingly interfering with the last sword fight being the one major faux pas of the staging – and two coffins in front of a large door stood for the crypt. The crowd scenes, especially the sword fights, were winningly choreographed.
It comes to no surprise that the music is lushly romantic, and if may not have all of the weight necessary to support the full emotional depth of Shakespeare's tragedy, it stayed thankfully away from excessive maudlinness. Damrau and Grigolo had beautiful arias and duets that they consistently nailed with impeccable savoir faire, turning their scenes into the undisputed highlights of the evening. And the typically fabulous Met chorus also had several opportunities to show that they were having a very good night as well.
The always dependable orchestra delivered a warm, energetic and richly melodic performance under the baton of Met regular Gianandrea Noseda, who cleverly focused more on firing up the score's all-out lyricism than on getting closer to the more subdued French style. The result was an exciting musical accompaniment that compellingly contributed to the non-stop drama unfolding on the stage, which in turn made our evening with Roméo et Juliette a complete success.