Thursday, February 2, 2017

Love in the Time of Faction

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette
Metropolitan Opera
January 28, 2017

Our pair of convalescent lovers
Photo credit: Met Opera
It was (again) one of those evenings when the stage manager appears at the front of the stage to a palpable gasp of despair from every corner of the house. “Diana Damrau is recovering from a cold [pregnant pause] and so is Vittorio Grigolo…” A ripple of shock swept through the audience: No! The announcement continued, “and so they will be singing anyway. Enjoy the performance.” Thank goodness these two lead singers are normally exceptionally strong, which meant that despite their various states of convalescence, they sounded great both individually and together. Since they often sing together, the chemistry between them is evident.

Grigolo strikes his Romèo pose
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor Vittorio Grigolo is one of the most thrilling super divos to grace the Met stage of late. As per his usual, he chewed up the scenery, or rather he climbed all over it. There was hardly a pillar or a platform or a column that he didn’t run and jump and ramp up on. He literally bounced off the sets embodying a romantic super-hero with a voice to match his exuberant physical prowess. That soaring quality that we look for in a great romantic tenor was definitely there, but his voice was deeper this time out, chestier than I remember it. Perhaps that was due to the cold and if so it had a pleasantly manlier side effect.

Grigolo chews up the scenery
Photo credit: Met Opera
Grigolo had several moving moments, however he really took me by storm, emotionally, when he bounded pensively across the stage toward Juliette’s balcony in Act II to cry out, L’amour, l’amour!… Ah! lève-toi soleil. Young love is at the center of the opera and this moment puts its earliest gushing red flush in words, sets it to music. Grigolo’s boyish Neapolitan charms were on full display. He’s also just a pleasure to watch, gigioneggiando hither, thither and yon.

Soprano Diana Damrau often strikes the figure of a stately dame on the operatic stage with an equally stellar vocal technique. She is a master. Somehow in order to play the star-crossed young lover Juliette, she came off as fully rejuvenated, fresh faced and bubbly. She threw herself into the role energetically and with spunk. Even her costumes look great and were very flattering of her figure. In one way or another every time she breezed across the stage a cloud of muslin and gauze floated in a flurry all around her. This Juliette was celestial also thanks to the aura of lightweight fabric that always accompanied her. Damrau’s singing was also top notch, despite the cold.

A grand dame rejuvenated
Photo credit: Met Opera
Juliette’s famous waltz in Act I, Je veux vivre, was self-assured, defiant and flirty at the same time. She intoned with exuberance the verses in which she muses on girding herself against the assaults of love in favor of living life on her own terms. Laisse-moi sommeiller / Et respirer la rose, / Respirer la rose / Avant de l’effeuiller (Let me sleep and smell the rose, before despoiling it). The imagery of savoring the rose, rather than seizing it, poses a subtle affront to the classic carpe diem trope that has so often been employed by young men to coax their ladies into love. Damrau’s body language very cleverly sent one message while her words communicated another.

Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez sang a charming if not naïf rendition of Stéphano’s one big aria in the second half of Act III. With its refrain of Gardez bien la belle!, her take had less of an edge of assault, and instead came off as more of an innocent, playful taunt. The contrast was nevertheless felt inasmuch as it serves to introduce the climactic duel that closes the act and ends in deaths on both sides of the factional divide.

Stunning Italianate sets update the action to 18th Century Verona
Photo credit: Met Opera
This is, of course, the time honored story about the tragic star-crossed lovers of Verona. It’s first iteration dates back to Matteo Bandello’s novella, which was probably written between 1531-1545 and which had already been widely translated and imitated. Placed among his early works, Shakespeare’s own version dates to the end of the 16th century, which then provides the basis for the 1867 opera by Charles Gounod with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

At first encounter with the immaculately detailed sets designed by Michael Yeargin for Bartlett Sher’s new production, it would seem that the purists in the Met audience are finally getting what they always long for: a hyper-realistic period piece with all the fixings. And they really allow you to revel in the beauty of the scenery on stage. As you file into your seat the curtain is already up so you can feast your eyes on the beautifully detailed depiction of a very Veronese piazza with its palatial facades and abundant traces of Roman relics including a single column set up in the middle of the square.

Love in the time of factions
Photo credit: Met Opera
Once the show gets going, however, it becomes clear – primarily only through the costuming decisions made by Catherine Yuber – that the action has been set not in the early Italian Renaissance but rather it has been updated to the 18th century. The Capulets are dressed in coats and stockings that make them look more French, like the Bourbon monarchs who held power in Italy and elsewhere in this period, than like Italians of the time. The Montagues are dressed decidedly different. Romeo and his gang of hoodlums come off as belonging to some kind of rebel class of slightly later Jacobin revolutionaries sporting leather coats and frilly shirts unbuttoned (showing off hunky pectorals). But aren’t we supposed to still be in Italy? What does this production accomplish by setting the story of these two timeless lovers against the tensions of later (French?) political classes?

A world in which poetry and violence collide
Photo credit: Met Opera
The program notes tell us that the choice was to set the story in a “mythical Verona” that would represent “a beautiful but dangerous world where poetry or violence might erupt at any moment.” There was also some intended reference to Fellini’s Casanova but did not seem to fully work with the overall plot. While the sets may have been Italianate, the costumes were decidedly French. They seemed to pit the ancien régime off against a clan of Jacobin-looking revolutionaries, Capulets and Montagues, respectively.

The Met orchestra sounded terrific and from the moment that it launched into the big tragic chords of the overture to Gounod’s romantic masterpiece under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, the turmoil and tumult rocking the world outside slowly faded away. Mind you it doesn’t turn out well for anybody involved. While in the play the tragedy leads to the reconciliation of the feuding families, Gounod’s version closes on the couple expiring together, which is a more definitive and dramatic ending, certainly more fitting for the operatic form.

– Lui & Lei

The couple expires and the story ends
Photo credit: Met Opera

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