18 Mar 2011

Roméo et Juliette, New York

Is Guy Joosten’s staging of Roméo et Juliette the best-looking production in the Met’s current repertory or what?

With its faux marquetry sets by Johannes Leiacker and spectacular astronomical projections for the star-crossed and velvet-clad lovers (lighting by David Cunningham, costumes by Jorge Jara), the stage is always a delight to watch while this is on, no matter who is singing. I wish they’d use these sets for operas I liked better—Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, say, or Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi (to keep the story on track), or Verdi’s Trovatore or Vespri, or Auber’s La Muette de Portici, or Mercadante’s Il Bravo, or Mascagni’s Parisina, or Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, or Korngold’s Violanta—just about anything Renaissance-themed and at least faintly Italian. It’s entirely too beautiful to leave it to rare encounters with sugary Gounod.

RJ_Met_2011_03.pngDwayne Croft as Capulet and Hei-Kyung Hong as Juliette

The current revival was to have placed gallant young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala beside Romanian glamour-girl soprano Angela Gheorghiu, but for whatever reason (illness, she says) Madame Gheorghiu was a no-show. I do not find the lady’s voice or her use of it persuasive enough to mourn her absence. Standing in for her was Hei-Kyung Hong, who with all the looks, twice the technique and three times the vocal gift of Gheorghiu, has never been a candidate for stardom but, rather, a totally assured first-class house singer of roles from Handel, Mozart and Verdi to Puccini and Wagner. If she has lacked the spark of individuality that inspires cult, her dedication to singing, to excellence, has made her a favorite with Met audiences for twenty-five years. She is still a pretty woman and an able actress, albeit lacking the little self-knowing and personal touches that a stage animal like Natalie Dessay brought to Juliette when this production was new. Too, she might be faulted for a certain coolness, a lack of passion—this Juliette does not grow into a woman convincingly, but that is partly due to the omission at the Met of her potion aria in Act IV. In any case, after a few nervous high notes in the coloratura showcases of Act I, Hong settled into a lovely, creamily sung performance.

RJ_Met_2011_02.pngJulie Boulianne as Stephano

Beczala, a tenor I have admired as Edgardo and Lenski, has the Slavic fault (I identify it with Hvorostovsky) of pausing between beautiful phrases that should be strung together in ardent, breathless apostrophe, but his “Lève-toi, soleil” was nonetheless a high point of a year of good tenorismo. He was ably supported by Sean Panikkar’s Tybalt; Lucas Meacham’s impressive Mercutio; James Morris’s rumbly Frère Laurent; and Dwayne Croft’s most distinguished Capulet. Mr. Croft is another of those house singers who brings class to anything he sings, and he seemed very much the host of this gala party. Wendy White was not up to her usual standard as the Nurse—I could hardly hear he in the wedding quartet, and I was sitting thirty feet away. Julie Boulianne, a mezzo with a developing reputation, sang Stephano: She puzzled me, as she has in the past, not for the occasional ringing and beautiful high notes, which are sure to please, but for the off-pitch or scattershot phrases that led up to them. The conductor was Plácido Domingo, and though his beat seemed draggy at times, he kept things trundling and never threw the singers for a loop, no doubt remembering occasions when he had to keep his eye on a vague baton.


The crowd-movements were passable but the dueling was not. I would not say this if I had not seen the street brawl and the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt done so very well in the old Met production of this opera, some of the most realistic swordwork by elegant young men in tights I’ve ever seen on any stage. The current version, which relies too much on knife lunges (that must fall on the right crescendo to be effective), is unnecessarily awkward and complex. The singers tried, but they could not make it seem natural. The Met should try to find the guy who set this scene up in 1996 and entreat him to do it again.

John Yohalem