Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Shoddy New Rusalka

Dvořák’s Rusalka
Metropolitan Opera
February 17, 2017

Rusalka reunites with the lover of her dreams
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: I had a unique experience with Rusalka at the Met. Settling into the opening bars of the overture, Mark Elders’ subdued rendition of Dvořák’s score lulled me into a state of relax in which the outside world slowly faded into the background. Although I was really ready for a darker, more uncanny take on this rather visceral and often folkloristic soundscape that is as leavened with joy as it is laden with portentous foreboding, nevertheless I found myself immersed in a parallel musical universe. No passage embodies these dynamic dichotomies more than the prancing chorus of water nymphs with their refrain of “Ho, ho ho!” that is both appealing and strange. In any case, the peaceful salve of the luscious music hit the spot.

I wish I could say the same thing for the staging as it proceeded to set the tone for the story. Mary Zimmerman’s new production really left me lukewarm in the First Act. Rather than a naturalistic set, Daniel Ostling’s design presents the woodland grove of the water nymphs as a claustrophobic rectangular room with the sky and trees painted on the walls. The hardwood flooring did nothing to suggest an outdoor environment and the lake of the water sprite was nothing more than a rectangular opening in the floor. The only even semi-realistic detail is the tree in the middle of the stage on which Rusalka will perch during her Song to the Moon. The blatant staginess of the overall design made this lone naturalistic detail seem out of place.

I see a starkness
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Zimmerman’s production looked like the Met ran out of money from the get go. The first act is all about the setting in the woods, lakes and rivers. While I do not necessarily need something overly naturalistic, plopping a tree in the middle of a hardwood floor with an uneven hole and scattering a bunch of round plastic water lilies came across as a glorified rehearsal, with hand me down props.

The Natural world housed in a room
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Water is such an important plot element. Rusalka is a nymph made of water and falls in love with the Prince while he’s swimming the lake she inhabits. In this production, we need to believe that the lake is that spot where a handful of floorboards came off. To make things worse, when the Water Sprite comes out of the “lake,” poor Eric Owens had to jump awkwardly on those plastic leaves and then roll himself on the ground back to the hole in the floor. Again, it looked like a rehearsal in a run down theater, really painful to watch. Hardwood floor scattered with yellow plastic flowers was also all we got for the supposedly romantic encounter between the newly transformed Rusalka and the Prince. I’m not against minimalism, but this one seemed to lack any concept.  

Rusalka invokes the moon
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich
Lui: One of the clever touches, though, was the dress Rusalka wears when we first encounter her. Before she makes a deal with the witch Jezibaba to get her legs, she is burdened by a long trailing “aquatic” dress covered in water lilies that she struggles to move in. And indeed she is forced to swing it around ponderously until her transformation occurs.

I really only began to give the production the benefit of the doubt in Act II, when the ideas behind certain conceits revealed themselves. The action has now moved to the Prince’s palace. The same rectangular space including the same wide wide beam hardwood floors, that once “housed” the natural setting, now redressed, stands for a modest princely parlor.

They are still skimping on the flourishes of grandeur, but the parallel shape of the space seems significant. In one corner is a heaping mound of deer and antelope skulls all with glorious antlers that stand like a neglected pile of hunting trophies, denoting an abusive human attitude toward nature. The thematic tensions begin to emerge. In Zimmerman’s take this seems to be a story about the relationship between human society and the natural world.

Lei: It is true that the Act II sets looked a bit more together and engaged more the eye but I don’t see how they conveyed any strong vision. I did not necessarily got the man vs. nature theme, seems like a lot to ask from a pile of antlers.

Rusalka is out of her element in the human world
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Having gained a human form but having lost her voice in the process, Rusalka is now out of her element amidst the humans. Austin McCormick choreographed an extended dance scene that plays out during the ballet interlude in which we see Rusalka struggling to find her place in this new world. She wavers between fascination and terror as she takes in the opulent display of a dozen or so male and female dancers decked out in elegant evening wear who enact all the rituals of human courtship with its formal introductions, posing and posturing, seductions, and being swept off your feet by the consummation of love. Rusalka has a hard time finding her footing in the machine-like rapture of the social system that drives the human world, which the choreography beautifully enacted through movement and dance.

The water nymph has trouble fitting in
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
I finally warmed up to an interpretation of the idea behind the production as a whole in the Third Act, which I found most moving of all. Although I wouldn't call it terribly compelling theater in terms of spectacle, I nevertheless came to appreciate the subtle ways it posed an interpretative problem with which to engage.

All is askew and in tatters by the end
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
We now return to the woodland glade that has been disfigured almost beyond recognition. The set, which have been reduced to nothing more than a set, is now intentionally crooked. The walls with their painted forest scene have been shredded revealing the raw two-by-fours of the set’s skeleton, an intentional metatheatrical nod to the fictiveness of the space of the stage dressed with the simplest of sets.

The suggestion is that the destruction of the sets reflect Rusalka’s subjective perception of the world she once called home. Everything has changed now since she has been disabused of her illusions. In fact, in retrospect, in Egan to think that her subjective understanding was projected onto the natural world from the very beginning. When she sang to the moon in Act I she conjured the grand lunar body in the sky with a wave of her hand and she could even stop it temporarily in its slow march across the backdrop as she sang. However, at the same time, we find out from the Water Sprite in Act III that the damage was caused by a human. The Met’s supertitles render his explanation to the nymphs: “A human has spoiled our waters.” This is what I picked up on to explain Zimmerman’s transformation of the opera into a subtle commentary on the human ability to sully nature and bring ourselves down in the process.

Natural decline and the demise of humankind
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Following the touching demise of the prince who dies in the arms of his beloved nature goddess, I couldn't help but think of the timeliness of the message for the world today. So much for the escapist pleasures I experienced when the opera began. I was suddenly confronted with one of the most pressing issues we face.

There is only one way to break the curse
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: I found the Third Act sets as the most irritating at all. The sets here were just utterly trashed and dimly lit, as if they got abandoned or vandalized. Seems a little bit of a stretch to me to put so much emphasis on the line about humans spoiling waters, frankly. The idea there is that the Prince spoiled Rusalka (who used to be a nymph made of water). Other than Rusalka being distraught, the plot does not really justify a trashing of the sets. I usually like it when the production demands some extra thinking from the audience, unraveling interesting interpretations of a work. Take, for example, Zimmerman’s take on Sonnambula, which I personally love.

The problem with this Rusalka production is that it seemed to have some metatheatrical ambitions that were never fully realized or fleshed out with any sort of conviction. The result was a half-baked, cheap-looking staging. What a waste!

Lui: As one of the divas whom the Met is currently pushing, Kristine Opolais is a stunningly beautiful singing-actress. She is a pleasure to watch. After seeing her in several roles over the last couple of seasons, however, she hasn't showed me that she a voice suited for the grand hall of the house. It may very well be that she can vocally captivate an audience in some of the smaller European houses that are more intimate in scale. I have yet to be wowed by her sound here. She tackled the famous Song to the Moon modestly well but it wasn't transporting, as is often the case with the other roles in her repertory at the Met. As an actress she is more compelling. The way she played the final death scene here was as moving as I have ever seen her. It plays out much like the conclusion of the Manon Lescaut we saw her in last season, only here I found her performance more emotionally riveting.  

The irresistible charms of the Foreign Princess
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Agree. I don’t see the fuss around Kristine Opolais. She is definitely stunning but voice-wise she yet has to convince me. In this case, however, it didn't hurt that she had a strong leading man to play off against. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince was excellent. He carried the longing of this man who gets drawn into an unusual relationship with ardor and vigor from beginning to end, but also convincingly showing other colors. This Prince is also fickle and quick to change his passions when they don’t go how he expects, falling for the easier to understand “Foreign Princess.” He represents the human race as unreliable and untrustworthy. But, he also comes back strong with heartfelt desperation as he realizes his true love and dies in Rusalka’s arms. Soprano Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess was impressive, exceedingly loud in the face of Rusalka’s silence, she displayed an exuberant larger-than-life vocal performance, with fire and aggression that were a pleasure to hear.

Jezibaba conjures cures and curses
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Another impressive singer was mezzo Jamie Barton in the role of the witch Jezibaba. This lady has a sound that is luscious, enveloping and rich and this role seems to be written for her voice, menacing yet so melodic. She also seemed to embody the harsh witch with gusto and panache and just stole the show every time she was on stage.

The Water Sprite holds court in the woodland glade
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
As the Water Sprite, bass-baritone Eric Owens was thundering and authoritative, but suffered from poor costume choices, as he was sporting a frog-like outfit that came across as a caricature, at odds with the seriousness of his role.

The Met's previous production had a lushness this one lacks
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Mary Zimmerman’s production is decidedly minimalist when compared to the lush Otto Schenk production it rather unnecessarily replaces. It seems like a shame to have retired it. Was it worn out or did that one belong to Renee Fleming, for whom it served as a vehicle to her own notoriety as the great reviver of this otherwise neglected masterpiece? In order to launch a new generation of rising stars is perhaps explains why we needed something new, just not this one.

Lei & Lui

Jezibaba goes steampunk
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rossini Discoveries in Philly

Rossini’s Tancredi
Opera Philadelphia
February 19, 2017

A man goes down in this Rossini innovation
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia 
We can never get enough bel canto, so when we heard that Opera Philadelphia was staging the rare Rossini opera seria Tancredi with an intriguing cast, we seized the opportunity and made a Philly weekend getaway out of it. When it comes to satisfying high quality opera tourism near New York City, it turns out that Philadelphia is an excellent destination. It’s a highly walkable city with great museum (Barnes Foundation!), a robust food and drink scene and a well-balanced, quality opera program. The 2016/2017 season at Opera Philadelphia includes two contemporary works (Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves and a modern adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth – same libretto but new music by Fabrizio Cassol), two classics (Turandot and Nozze) and the revival of a forgotten Rossini gem, Tancredi.

The Academy of Music
Photo credit: Geoffrey Goldberg
In a burst of nerdiness, we got to the Academy of Music one hour before the show, to catch an introductory talk, that also gave us ample time to take in the stunning theater. Relatively small and beautifully decorated, it felt like stepping back in time and being swept to a historic European opera house. Interestingly, the 1857 theater is claimed to be the oldest venue in the U.S. still used for its original purpose. Opera Philadelphia seems to be doing a good job of luring crowds that are beyond the usual octogenarian upper crust opera public. We are glad to report that the Sunday matinee we attended had a very diverse set of patrons of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. A lot of families with teenage kids, too – gotta start them young!

Miscommunication belies the plot
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Now, about Tancredi. First things first, a summary of the little known plot that isn’t exactly the tightest. (Though to be fair it isn’t that crazy). Amenaide, a Siracusan Juliet-type, sends a letter to her exiled love interest, Tancredi (who is traveling and never receives the letter). Meantime Amenaide’s father makes peace with the opposing family in town and betroths her to his previous enemy in an act of good faith. She is reluctant to go along with the feudal arrangement, when the letter that never arrived is intercepted near the external enemy’s camp and is taken as proof of her treachery against her fatherland and family. Even Tancredi (who suddenly pops up in Siracusa) takes it as such. Amenaide is sentenced to death for treason (by decree of her own torn father!). However Tancredi won’t abide by the sentence. He steps up to challenge her accuser and betrothed in a duel to defend her honor. But getting her off the hook isn’t enough to satisfy the stubborn and fearless Tancredi.

After defeating the evil internal villain, Orbazzano, Tancredi takes his fight to the external enemy, the unseen Muslim invader Solamir. Amenaide is desperate to express her gratitude and explain the whole mix up of the mislaid letter but Tancredi won’t hear it. He’s on a mission to win glory against the Saracens. And although (at least in this version) he is mortally wounded in the skirmish, he nevertheless emerges the victor. As the savior of the day, he dies triumphantly in his beloved’s arms and the opera comes to an abrupt dramatic end with the quiet expiration of its eponymous hero.

The action has been transposed to the early 20th Century
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
A co-production of the Opera de Lausanne and the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, in the vision of Spanish director Emilio Sagi, the action has been transposed from the Middle Ages to the post-WWI era in Europe. Costumes are all flashy military coats and flowy early twentieth-century gowns, sets are dominated by a grandiose palace, all marble and mirrors with the occasional art-deco flourish, all very handsome.

From the first notes of the overture, the orchestra, under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, sounded tight and well versed in Rossini’s fiery melodies that are always such a pleasure to hear, notwithstanding the deja vu sensation at inevitably accompanies the experience (given how much the composer recycled bits of his works, particularly the overtures).

Blythe takes the whole thing up a notch (or two)
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Just as I was thinking in the opening movements of the opera that the sets looked great and that the supporting cast seemed solid, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made her entrance as the hero Tancredi and everything changed. She effortlessly elevated everything to a whole other level. Her instrument is fluid, effortless and deeply melodic, particularly in the lower range that borders on a contralto sound at times. While Rossini has lots of mezzos in its operas, it’s pretty rare to see them in pants roles, let alone as leading heroes. Blythe’s tessitura is impressive in terms of power, color and agility. Her expressivity, too, was utterly moving. Time stopped every time she opened her mouth, embodying the wronged noble loving Tancredi with truly heroic tones. And could she ever fill the space with her voice. It was stunning.

Argirio orchestrates peace for family and patria
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
When the leading singer is so strong, everybody else in the cast gets dwarfed a bit, no matter how good they are. Tenor Michele Angelini in the role of Amenaide’s father Argirio, sounded technically accurate with a handsome enough sound, however he never let his vocal line really soar in the upper range and often came off as a bit restrained, which is a pity as the beauty and excitement of bel canto tenors lies also in those high explosions of emotions.

Amenaide unwillingly betrothed to the vile Orbazzano
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Soprano Brenda Rae as the heroine Amenaide had some excellent moments, particularly when interacting in duets with other characters, however she seemed to have a bit of a hard time with some of the higher notes in her solo showstopping arias. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as the villain Orbazzano was a great grounding force, particularly in the ensemble pieces, and took perhaps a bit too much pleasure in uttering an evil laugh each time he walked off stage. Mezzo Allegra De Vita displayed expressive agility as Amenaide’s friend Isaura.

All in all, Tancredi was a thoroughly enjoyable bel canto opera. Perhaps not the most compelling plot (all dramatic tension would dissipate if only Amenaide would have just told Tancredi about the letter he never got) but it was definitely a great pleasure to hear, with several exciting vocal moments. Through the introductory talk, we discovered one important bit of opera history: who knew that this was the first opera to end not with a summation finale with the sextet and chorus, all out on the stage commenting on the action, but rather with a slow fade into death with its abrupt dramatic resolution? What a discovery. I had recently been reflecting on this shift in taste. Rusalka, Manon Lescaut, La Bohéme among other gems in our recent outings all end in this fashion, whereas L’italiana, Don Giovanni, the list could go on and on, all close with a choral metanarrative moment. When did it all change? Turns out it was Rossini’s Tancredi when the composer was only 21. Who knew?!

- Lei & Lui

The climactic death after which opera would never be the same
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Glittery Saturated Baroque at Juilliard

Handel’s Agrippina
Juilliard School of Music
February 16, 2017
A sickly Claudius who just keeps refusing to die
Photo credit: Richard Termine
I never pass up an opportunity to catch some staged fiery baroque opera. Agrippina, Handel’s semi-serious farce on the slow setting of the sun on the emperor Claudius’s reign, is one of those oddities that you just never know what to do with. It presents a slew of emotionally gripping serious musical moments which are then juxtaposed to many of the classic opera buffa tropes, some of which will make their way into Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy and from there into Mozart and Da Ponte’s Nozze di Figaro.

Whereas Agrippina reigns supreme
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Yet, Juilliard’s production of Agrippina was a beautifully crafted and richly detailed little package delivered with explosive flair. Which should come as no surprise since the show was directed by Heartbeat Opera’s Louisa Proske, who has been rapidly building a solid track record of detail-oriented, thoughtful and irreverent productions. The opera was staged in the Wilson Theater, one of the small black box venues buried deep in the labyrinthine studio space of the Juilliard School. The audience sat around a small sunken set covered in overlapping red-hued oriental rugs and the orchestra played from a platform above the rear of the “stage.” This setting provided a highly intimate experience with excellent acoustics, where the few lucky spectators could really focus on the action and the several show-stopping arias that are really the best part of this opera.

The whole cast was impressive for being so young in terms of their ability to nail this virtuosic baroque material with almost flawless Italian diction. They all handled the highly melismatic coloratura of the score with poise and skill and none of them were breathless in their pursuit of the period orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Grossman, which sounded great yet not as muscular as my favorite renditions of Handel’s score.

Poppea (left) despairs before the Empress Agrippina
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Particularly impressive highlights were soprano Samantha Hankey (as Agrippina) and the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski (as Ottone). Ms. Hankey reigned over the entire production grounding it in some semblance of seriousness. She embodied a fiercely scheming, power-hungry woman who is unstoppable in her aspiration of situating her son Nerone on the throne. Vocally, she was impressive, particularly in Pensieri, voi mi tormentate. Mr. Orlinski was particularly expressive and beautifully musical, all while displaying a kinetic stage presence. At one point he literally did three back flips consecutively in place that emphasized his exuberant joy when he realizes Poppea does return his love. I guess that when you have a breakdancing countertenor on hand, you have make the most of it.

Roman regalia meets baroque pomp meets steampunk strange
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The cast sported mostly awe-inspiring, eccentric costumes, sort of a cross between ancient Roman regalia and high baroque swank, with some extra glitter for good measure. Goth and steampunk elements were also slipped in under the radar adding an odd note to the mix. Also, while I get the importance of the many sexual tensions peppered through the plot, perhaps a giant hand-shaped sex toy used by Poppea’s suitors to express their arousal was probably a tad too much. On the other hand, Nerone crawling constantly out from behind his mother between her legs made more sense as it was semi-sexual but also emphasized his forever childishness which worked with plot and character.

All hail the Caesar!
Photo credit: Voce di Meche
And so yes, Handel’s Agrippina is a farce masquerading as semi-serious opera. With its tidy conclusion, it is a comedy of sorts. Some have even called it an antiheroic satirical comedy for its reported commentary on court intrigues of the time, most of which is lost on us now, as is the goofy way that certain moments of operas like this one inevitably play out. While so much of the music is so visceral, so grave and so serious, many story elements and several plot points don’t really rise to the gravitas of the occasion to match.

Agrippina (right) deploys her powers
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The story hinges on a series of lies, with intersecting plots carried out secretly. Everybody is tricking everybody else at one point. Much like the count in Le nozze di Figaro, the emperor Claudius has designs to cheat on his wife Agrippina with the loveliest lady-in-waiting, Poppea, who is in turn desired by both Ottone and Nerone. In order to get the emperor to regain his focus, Poppea, Agrippina and just about everybody else all choreograph their own overlapping plots and schemes to achieve their various desired outcomes. The shakedown and its accompanying recognition scene only come late and it culminates in a happy ending with divine reconciliation piled on heavy.

All is well that ends well, except for the fact that Louisa Proske and her team decided to saturate the scene with a quick final flash of blood red light once Nerone grabs the scepter of power in the end, foreboding of what’s to come under the emperor’s dangerously childish rule. And perhaps that was the moment where the political satire made itself felt for audiences today – an extra flourish added by the production team that portends terrible things when the emperor is little more than a man-child.

– Lei & Lui

Court intrigue is the order of the day
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito

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