Cher Public

Foolish love

rj-1After all the horror and trauma of 2016, a double suicide honestly sounds like the perfect way to end the year. Well, at least the Metropolitan Opera agrees with me; and so the company ushers out this wretched year and rings in the new with an elegant and effective new production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, succinctly directed by Bartlett Sher and conducted with passion and generosity by Gianandrea Noseda

After opening the season with the doomed love of Tristan und Isolde and moving on in the autumn to the erotic separations of L’amour de Loin, Roméo et Juliette is a fitting addition to a season at the Met rife with tragic romance. With a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, the opera is essentially a retelling of the famous Shakespeare play, which is itself a variation on the Pyramus and Thisbe myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It is quite a project to elevate such well-known material beyond the stock clichés we have all come to expect. However, Sher’s production is striking in that it makes effective use of the thresholds between private and public spheres, and the pressures, longings, and obligations that blur these distinctions.

From the very first chords of the opera, the chorus positions the plot within the domain of the communal: the vast and dignified generations of the Capulets and the Montagues deliver the prologue—large prominent families of Verona, their hatred for one another seething just beneath the surface.

From this sobering beginning, we are whisked away to the swirling, glittery bacchanal of a masked ball in 18th century Verona, which, with its notions of public and private personae, is the perfect setting for young and foolish love to flourish.

rj-2The set by Michael Yeargan is stationary, suggesting a vast array of spatial structures, including a courtyard, a plaza, a church, and finally a tomb. Roméo and Juliette spend their wedding night within the same material location as each of these civil institutions, with only a white sheet to indicate the setting of the bedroom.

And so the private becomes public, and the political implications of personal experience become all the more evident. This clever approach to the opera makes even clearer how the two protagonists operate within a much larger, complex social structure than one initially realizes.

But beyond these theoretical concerns, Sher’s production is, at the most fundamental level, a good looking and well-produced evening of Music Theater—touchingly lit in dusky hues by Jennifer Tipton, and costumed sumptuously by Catherine Zuber. The staging feels organic and well choreographed, especially the more athletic fight scenes by B.H. Barry. And the evening moves briskly through the well-known plot points, never repetitive or overbearing in its ardor.

Central to this success, however, are the extremely likeable and (mostly) virtuosic performances of Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo, as the eponymous lovers. They have a remarkably combustible chemistry together. Grigolo especially brings a pliant, richly supple sound to his role, with a smooth tenor that rings through the house. He is athletic, graceful, and handsome. Moreover, he possesses an electric charisma of Barihunk capacity.

rj-3Damrau, as well, brings a spunky, shimmering vocalism to her work as the young Juliette. She embodies the callow and impetuous spirit of a young girl, flushed with desire. Her “Poison Aria” is moving in its sharply defined dialectic; she makes her ambivalence palpable, wrestling with both her fear and longing. And though her singing lacks the striking vigor of her Roméo (her trills are not as clean as one would like), she still manages many passages that evoke a sweeping, romantic pathos.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast is less successful. Elliot Madore, good looking in the role of Mercutio, offers a rather simplistic reading of an emotionally complex figure. Moreover, his baritone sounds muted and diffused, devoid of any lyrical sparkle. And as his foil Tybalt, Diego Silva makes an inauspicious debut, with a serviceable tenor that doesn’t offend, but also fails to impress.

In the role of Frére Laurent, Michail Petrenko lacks the majesty suggesting the character’s moral gravitas. He looms about the stage, offering little security to the frazzled and harrowed lovers. And as Stephano, Virginie Verrez begins well, but makes a bit of a mess with the end of her “Que fais-tu”. Laurent Naouri is forgettable as Capulet.

However, these clunky performances couldn’t derail Sher’s expert direction, nor could they cool the febrile chemistry between the two leads. After such a gloomy year, it was nice to see some sparks fly in a Roméo et Juliette. Lovingly staged, and a vehicle for some rather excellent singing, this production is enough to make one feel optimistic. Here’s looking forward (knock on wood) to 2017.

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

  • Satisfied

    Lovely review. Thank you. I’m very much looking forward to the production now.

  • Claire

    Excellent review and I agree with all of it. Grigolo and Damrau were incandescent; the fight scenes were unusually well-done. As much as I like Petrenko, he never quite seemed to know what to do with himself or where he was supposed to be standing. Mercutio and Tybalt seemed weirdly irrelevant, though in fairness I suppose it’s difficult to be on a stage with Damrau and Grigolo and not fade into the background.

    Definitely a worthwhile evening for the leads, the production, and the excellent conducting.

    • Pirelli

      I had also given a very short opinion on the “chat” thread below. I mostly agree, based on my hearing the broadcast (albeit tempered by a little bit of new year’s eve “potion” lol) -- most of the supporting cast may have come off better over the airwaves. I was disappointed by Petrenko’s lack of low notes. I thought the Mercutio was fine -- I did think that maybe he wasn’t quite on top of breathing through the Mab aria -- hard to tell. Was the claque (i.e. the guy who yelled “bravo” after virtually everything) as annoying in-house? I like enthusiasm, but still…

      But yes -- for an opera I’ve always had just a bit of trouble really embracing (it’s beautiful, but somehow just never a favorite), I really did enjoy hearing this production quite a bit. And I’ll be eager to see it when I can.

      And an enthusiastic yes to both Damrau and Grigolo. And Noseda. Sounded great.

      • Claire

        I agree -- move two steps sideways to the Koch Theater and okay, but the Met, I just have a hard time seeing that giant aircraft hangar as a good venue for musicals.

        I was in the Family Circle and I think Claque Guy was down closer to the microphones, so he probably wasn’t as annoying in the house. I do wish he’d waited to start yelling until the echoes died, though.

        • Pirelli

          It’s not even so much about the size of the house -- it’s about the personnel and the simple but exacting requirements of the show itself. No way are the (wonderful) members of the Met chorus going to be the youthful singers/DANCERS that WSS absolutely requires. I’d be worried about casting singers who can really do the quite substantial book real justice (this ain’t Merry Widow or even Magic Flute -- and it’s got to be *real* acting, not just declaiming). And let’s not forget that Anita is a major DANCE role, not as much a prima singing role. So are Riff and Bernardo, and all the other solo roles within the Jets. And I’m sorry to say this, but after the Carreras disaster Bernstein left as his attempt at a recorded legacy, I think Tony *has* to be an American tenor. With all due respect to Grigolo, whose heart and talent would be in the right place -- but it would just not be right. Not if we’re to take the production as a serious attempt to do the piece correctly. And if not, why do it? Especially when it can be done so well (and HAS been done so well) in the context of a Broadway production not so many blocks away.

          • Bill

            Pirwlli -- other than seeing West Side Story
            in the original production on Broadway 3 times in 1957-8, and some other USA productions
            I have seen in performed in Bucharest, Vienna, Praque, Szeged in Hungary and 3 times in Budapest in different venues.
            No matter who is doing the musical, or what language it always touches the heart.
            All of the theaters in which I have seen it have
            residence ballet dancers (for operas or operettas and musicals) and the Met seems not to have much of an ensemble. And I have never seen West Side Story in a cavernous theater such as the Met where
            surely miking would be required. Yet
            it might come off with careful casting and goodness knows in NYC plenty of suitable dancers are available and the Met
            would not have to present it with opera
            singers such as Carreras who had a
            Spanish accent when speaking English and
            for the part of Tony a foreign accent is not really appropriate. I think there was once some talk five or so years ago of a
            production of West Side Story at the Met.
            It would probably sell better than some of the current opera performances -- it is in the repertory of the Budapest Opera
            (at the Erkel) currently and sells very well.
            I have not seen this recent production at the Budapest Opera (with Erika Miklosa as
            Maria( nor the one at the Salzburg Festival with Cecelia Bartoli which is a fairlly large
            theater -- Neither would have been able o mimic Carol Lawrence reviews were good.

            The City Opera used to pull off musicals
            regularly at the State Theater which is
            larger than most opera houses in Europe
            though I do not recall them doing West
            Side Story. Who knows it might work at the Met (though there would be no intimacy with the stage from the Family Circle). If the production was a flop or did not sell it would not be the first time in recent years
            the Met has had a new production of a work which was seldom repeated in subsequent seasons. AND the location of Lincoln Center is precisely that of the work though that part of the West Side has very much
            been transformed since the 1950s .

            • Pirelli

              It’s still a matter of how most efficiently to use Met personnel in a Met production. The Met’s current arrangement is that they do have to job in dancers per production -- they no longer have a resident ballet troupe -- but have they ever done a production where an entire chorus of *singer/dancer/actors* have to be jobbed in, to the *exclusion* of the house chorus? I think that would be crazy to have to do, but for this show, they would really have to do it. I tend to think that most (if not all) of the musicals NYCO did (and that other companies like Chicago Lyric are doing) are of the classic older style before “triple threat” performers were required all around -- in, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and others of that time period, you traditionally have a singing chorus and a separate dancing chorus (that’s how they were written) -- so an opera company without the requisite dancers could hire the dancers and still have their own chorus sing. You might have a specialty case of a lead who has to dance very well (Bill in Kiss Me Kate, for instance, or Gladys in The Pajama Game), but most of the biggest dancing would be left to the dancer dancers. In the case of WSS, you need great dancers who can also play convincing individual characters with lots of dialogue, and who can also sing. The Met doesn’t have that. Would it really be worth jobbing in an entire non-Met cast for the sake of doing the show there?

              I think if the Met wants to try a classic American musical (outside of Porgy And Bess, which they of course have done), they should stick to the classic 40’s/50’s musicals pre-WSS, or something like Show Boat (that could be quite amazing on that stage, lol). If they really wanted to to Bernstein, it seems to me Candide would be the obvious choice. (Or perhaps On The Town with a jobbed-in ballet troupe and lead female dancer -- but that doesn’t really seem like the right fit to me.)Yes, I know those are the shows we see other opera companies do. But I think there’s good reason why those ARE the shows that American opera companies look to. They can still make use of the performing assets the company *already has,* while bringing in the other specialized missing parts.

            • steveac10

              They had to job in most of the chorus for the 85 Porgy and its two revivals (and in that case a huge roster of featured singers and comprimarios as well). Frankly it might make scheduling a bit easier if there were more nights when the regular chorus had the night off. It could also save on overtime.Running something like WSS or A Little Night Music could actually save them money and allow them to program chorus heavy operas more easily. Besides, if La Scala can do Candide, and almost every major opera house in the western world can do Sweeney Todd, why the hell can’t the Met?

            • Pirelli

              You do make a good point about Porgy,

              Actually, Sweeney would be an interesting choice for the Met. (So would Candide, as I mentioned.) And frankly, so would a piece like Les Miz or Phantom (were they allowed the rights to the latter while it’s still playing down the street lol).

              And of course, one can say that “every major opera house” does Sweeney or any other show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the right approach. Having heard the WQXR broadcast of the recent Glimmerglass “Sweeney” and broadcasts of other Sondheim attempts, such as the Chatelet “Into The Woods” a few seasons back, I have to say sometimes it would have been better to just do another Boheme lol. It’s nice to see opera companies embracing the rep. It’s better when they really understand the differences in how to approach the score of a musical. Often the result is musically too heavy-handed and (especially with Sondheim) with no attention to the importance of the text over all. (Or, sometimes you get conductors who really don’t seem to care to be “slumming” so to speak -- that’s what I felt when I heard the Chicago Lyric “Oklahoma” with what sounded like a bored human metronome leading the orchestra. Luckily, I feel their R&H productions have gotten much better, and I’m eager to hear their My Fair Lady this season.)

              And, IMO, I’d love to hear more companies embrace some of the complex Weill musicals (The Met could probably do Street Scene so well, IMO, and I would be there to see it in a heartbeat), or The Most Happy Fella (NYCO did it a few times), or The Golden Apple, or many other shows that would be well-served by a large theatre and a “legit” chorus, etc.

              This is always an interesting discussion, though, and with no clear-cut answers. I will say, though, that my instinct says the Met doesn’t have much interest in doing musicals. And that’s fine, given that NYC already has Broadway, for god’s sake, and that other opera companies worldwide *are* glad to try musicals out.

            • I think WSS requires more dancers than the Met currently has under employ. Unless it could arrange a partnership with NYCB or ABT to have some of their dancers just for a limited run in their off-season.

              I think Carousel is a much better fit. It requires a somewhat operatic style, many opera houses sing it, it hasn’t been seen on B’way since 1994. I’m already getting the warm fuzzies at the idea of Stephanie Blythe reprising Nettie.

            • Pirelli

              Carousel would be a great choice. (And Grigolo, if he’s really wanting to do a musical, could sing the hell out of Mr. Snow, lol.)

              Going by the original cast of WSS, there were 10 Jets and 10 Sharks (including Riff, Bernardo, and Chino), and 6 girls on each side (including Anybodys, Rosalia, and Consuelo). That’s 32 dancers, including the leads that dance and have major singing/acting roles. (Tony and Maria are NOT major dancing roles, or at least don’t have to be. They have the Cha-Cha in the gym, and he has the Rumble, but that’s it. They can have dream counterparts in the Act II ballet.) 32 dancers who also need to sing very well, and some who have a good deal of dialogue -- that probably is a tall order for the Met in terms of outside hire. (But how that compares to the hiring for Porgy and Bess, I don’t know.)

              Of course, another big part of choosing a musical would be commercial potential. No opera company is probably going to find an obscure show, even if it fits well, because it just might not sell. I say this because I do wish that Chicago were also doing Allegro as part of their R&H set -- it’s a score that deserves to be heard more often, and has a HUGE rewarding role for the chorus. But, since it’s not one of the famous R&H’s, and it’s largely considered a flop with a flawed book, they’re not doing it. Ah, well…

            • Susan Brodie

              When City Ballet performs their West Side Story suite, the dancers sing chorus in “America,” “Cool,” and “Somewhere,” and the dancers who sings Anita and Bif (the one in “Cool,” whatever his name is) do their own vocals, miked. It was quite effective A cooperative production could be interesting.

            • Pirelli

              Of course you realize the minute you say “miked,” a good deal of the core Met audience might quake angrily in their shoes, lol. (But yes, they would probably have to -- most certainly for the dialogue.)

              I found a youtube promo of the City Ballet production and the bits of singing they showed did sound just fine (they even had the full harmonies on America). I guess it would all depend on how the Met wanted to market the production. I think they’d be wiser to do what Chicago Lyric has been doing -- hiring known musical theatre performers for the roles that don’t need to sound quite so legit (Anita, Riff, the other Jets who have featured roles, etc) and maybe cast young opera singers as Tony and Maria. Instead of the NYCB route where the Riff, Anita, etc, are capable singers but not headliners.

            • Varkova

              Carousel is currently playing at Theater Basel, Switzerland. Unamplified. No microphones. Related stuff below (in German).

              “Billy hat sich selbst gerichtet, liegt vom eigenen Messer durchbohrt auf dem
              nackten Metallgerüst des Karussells, seine hochschwangere Freundin Julie
              bleibt alleine zurück, kann nur noch Wut empfinden, Trauer nicht
              zulassen. Da springt Nettie Fowler ein, stimmt den Song aller Songs an:
              When you walk through a storm, Hold your head up high
              And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm
              There’s a golden sky. And the sweet, silver song of a lark.
              Walk on, through the wind, Walk on, through the rain,
              Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
              Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart,
              And you’ll never walk alone, You’ll never walk alone

              und nun fliessen die Tränen nicht nur bei Julie, sondern auch bei den
              Zuschauern. Denn das ist in all ihrer Schlichtheit nicht nur eine
              berührend tröstliche Melodie und ein wunderbar auf den Punkt gebrachter
              theatralischer Moment – das ist in dieser Aufführung von CAROUSEL auch
              ein musikalisch bewegender Augenblick.”
              “Keine Geringere als Cheryl
              Studer steht nämlich auf der Bühne des Theaters Basel und intoniert
              dieses Lied mit ergreifender Schönheit in Ausdruck und Stimmgebung. Sie,
              die einst die Säle der bedeutendsten Opernhäuser füllte, von der Met
              über Covent Garden, die Scala, die Bayreuther Festspiele bis München und
              Wien, das lyrische Repertoire von Mozart über Donizetti, Verdi und
              Strauss (z.B. Arabella in Zürich!) bis Wagner beherrschte wie kaum eine
              andere Sopranistin zu der Zeit, für die Deutsche Grammophon unzählige
              Gesamtaufnahmen einspielte, demonstrierte eindrücklich, wie gut sie
              immer noch singen und gestalten kann, sich (auch wenn sie körperlich
              nicht mehr ganz so beweglich ist) mit einer unglaublichen Bühnenpräsenz
              und mit ihrer eindringlichen Mimik in die Rolle stürzt. Und ganz im
              Sinne dieses Liedes riefen die Künstlerinnen und Künstler am Ende nach
              dem Schlussapplaus dann zu Spenden für die Flüchtlingskinder in Aleppo
              auf und alle zusammen intonierten noch einmal diese Takte, welche
              hymnischen Kultstatus besitzen. Dabei krönte die Sängerin der Julie
              Jordan – Bryony Dwyer – den Schluss mit ihren silbern glänzenden
              Spitzentönen -- toll!”
              “…Der Applaus war zunächst relativ verhalten
              (erst nach der Wiederholung von You’ll never walk alone wurde er
              enthusiastischer). Vielleicht muss sich das heutige Publikum erst einmal
              daran gewöhnen, dass es auch eine Zeit gab, in der man Musicals ohne
              ohrenbetäubende elektronische Verstärkung und Microports aufführen
              konnte und es deshalb wieder lernen muss hinzuhören…”

              “…Die einst weltberühmte Opernprimadonna Cheryl Studer setzt an zum musikalischen Höhepunkt des Abends…”
              Studer als Nettie Fowler überragt alle und alles an diesem Abend. Die
              Studer war mal ein Weltstar und in allen grossen Opernhäusern der Welt
              zu Gast. Und sie ist auch heute noch durch und durch Primadonna – im
              besten Sinne des Wortes, wohlgemerkt. Diese Frau hat eine packende
              Bühnenpräsenz, eine wunderbare Ausstrahlung, die sich nicht richtig
              erklären lässt…”

              Video trailer

              Never Walk Alone“: Großer Auftritt für Cheryl Studer. Die pfundige
              Mezzosopranistin singt und spielt die Café-Besitzerin Nettie Fowler…”

              Opernlegende Cheryl Studer (als Wirtin Nettie Fowler) und der Basler
              Dauerbrenner Andrew Murphy in der Rolle des Kriminellen Jigger Craigin
              tun mit ihrer Bühnenpräsenz dem Abend gut…”

              “…hochkarätig besetzt mit Cheryl Studer…”

              Audio program with info on the work and production, including music snippets

            • Pirelli

              Sounds (and looks) like fun! ;-)

              BTW -- the original show lyric is “When you walk through a storm / Keep your chin up high” -- it got changed for the film to “hold your head up high.” I don’t mind the changed lyric, but prefer the original.

            • Rob NYNY

              The Met disbanded the corps de ballet in 2013.

  • Kenneth Conway

    I was doubtful, out of Sher trepidation, but this excellent review convinces me that I must go. Thank you.

  • chicagoing

    Viewing the trailer on the Met site I noted some small differences from the production that closed the LOC’s season last year. Juliette’s gown for the ball was aggressively pink and the vial she drank from was quite small in comparision to what is on view. When you entered the theatre in Chicago the curtain was already raised and members of the chorus slowly and silently (and somewhat ominously) took their places on the dim stage before the performance began. Was that handled the same way in New York?

  • Ailun Song

    Anyone know if Damrau is singing this Friday? Apparently Eglise Gutierrez was covering for her in I Puritani at a dress rehearsal this week..