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Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette
26 Apr 2009

Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at Salzburg, 2008

In 2008 the Salzburg Festival intended to bring back the two stars of their triumphant 2005 La Traviata, Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko, for Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.

Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette

Nino Machaidze; Rolando Villazón; Mikhail Petrenko: Russell Braun; Falk Struckmann. Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4518 [2DVDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

At one time, it might have seemed that Villazón would be the artist to drop out of the production, as in late 2007 he was beset with problems, apparently both personal and vocal, that led him to take an extended hiatus. While he returned to performing, Netrebko and partner Erwin Schrott decided to collaborate on a different production, a child, and the pregnant soprano cancelled her summer Salzburg performance. Who would — or could — replace her?

Nino Machaidze took on the assignment, and with the appearance of that Roméo et Juliette on DVD, the then-25 year old Georgian soprano establishes herself as a rising star. Initially a slight resemblance to Netrebko, both facially and in the dusky beauty of her instrument, may hinder an appreciation of the effectiveness of Machiadze’s performance. But just as Juliet develops from a flighty, free-spirited young girl to a serious, passionate young woman, Machiadze’s appeal grows. She never strives for either showy vocal or histrionic display — unlike her co-star — and her subtle approach draws in the viewer. She has adequate skills for her opening number with its coloratura aspects, and the fullness of voice for the role’s highlight, Juliet’s drinking of the potion for inducing suspended animation. Some may want a more exuberant and tragic Juliet, but for many Machiadze’s steadier approach will win their hearts more honestly.

Other than some passing hoarseness, Villazón shows few signs of his recent troubles vocally. He is a good enough actor that the manic edge he brings to his Romeo may be part of his portrayal, but at times some darkness around the eyes suggests he had not, at that stage, fully recovered his previous confidence. As expected, Salzburg provides an exemplary supporting cast, with Mikhail Petrenko’s relatively youthful Friar Laurence, Falk Struckmann’s ponderous Capulet, and an excellent Cora Burggraaf in what amounts to a cameo aria for Romeo’s page, Stéphano.

Bartlett Sher’s staging manages to be both handsome, energetic, and yet unaffecting. The rich costumes (by Catherine Zuber) and the stark, atmospheric set design (by Michael Yeargan) place the action in France, possibly mid-18th century. Sher employs the usual arsenal of contemporary stagecraft, with ample sex and violence (including a pantomime of a brutal rape during the prelude), singer/performers emerging from the audience, and detailed stage action that seems to give everyone some bit of business to do. Sher delineates characters skillfully, and the stage pictures maintain visual interest. Then why does it feel as if some spark went unstruck? The problem could lie in the material: despite a frequently gorgeous score, Gounod’s Shakespeare adaptation feels uninspired and unimaginative, sticking closely to the original (other than than the pointless expansion of the page character and the regrettable diminution of the Nurse).

Gounod’s music gets a taut, rhythmically propulsive reading from conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Mozartuem Orchester Salzburg. It’s unfortunate that the rather silly bonus features (mostly travelogue) don’t allow for some insight into how the conductor worked with the musicians and singers to produce such a fine performance.

Make no mistake, this DVD entertains, but it does not have anything like the impact of that 2005 Traviata, and wouldn’t have, it seems safe to say, even if Netrebko had not cancelled. View it to obtain an introduction to Nino Machiadze, an appealing new soprano.

Chris Mullins

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