Monday, February 14, 2005

O nuit kind of divine... Roméo et Juliette at Los Angeles Opera

If Charles Gounod were alive today, I think he would either be a filmmaker or a soundtrack composer. There is something quite cinematic about his operas and his music; I get a feeling of shallowness in it—there is certainly often beauty in the music, but there aren’t any other ideas at play, and the music can often become bombastic or too sugary. Gounod’s main aim, it seems, was to accompany the action onstage as best he could musically, and that is all. Certainly there are times in Roméo et Juliette when the music tells us things that the words are not, but there is very little layering or subtlety behind it. Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is very similar to Thomas’s Hamlet in that it can be incredible if performed by the right kind of singing actors who can bring the necessary Shakespearean nuance to the characters while singing the sometimes facile music. Simon Keenlyside, for example, can overcome the silliness of Thomas’s Hamlet-with-the-happy-ending, because he seems to keep Shakespeare’s Hamlet in mind even as he sings an out-of-place drinking song in the opera. This is music not necessarily to enlighten or transform, and it is certainly entertaining and even beautiful when performed by the right singers and the right musicians, but the responsibility for taking the performance to that next level rests almost entirely on the singers’ acting abilities.

Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko are both capable actors, and more than capable singers, but only Villazon seemed to have any sense of the Shakespearean version of his character. Though he looks like the unholy spawn of Rowan Atkinson and a particularly hirsute bullfrog, onstage, he is a slim, active Roméo, with curly, black hair and wide, expressive dark eyes. His Roméo was impulsive in every way, as quick to embrace Frère Laurent or Mercutio as he was to strike Tybalt for calling him a coward. Vocally, he sounded like a young Placido Domingo, with better French but without that bright, trumpet-like edge to the voice. His high notes seemed easy and were often pleasant to the ear, but at other times, it seemed as if there were a door in his throat that was closed, only allowing the sound to seep around and under it. My main objection with his performance was how he sang “Va, répose en paix”. I have only ever seen one other Roméo, Roberto Alagna, and Alagna sang that piece more as a lullaby or a serenade, very softly and sweetly, with an ethereally floating last note that seemed to dissipate into the air like fading perfume. Villazon chose to sing the piece more as a standard aria, more loudly and stridently than I thought was necessary.

Anna Netrebko was less successful as Juliette. She seemed to have no concept of the character of Juliette, and her interpretation seemed pieced together from other operatic characters she has played. Juliette’s first appearance at the ball was more like our first glimpse of Violetta in La Traviata, with Netrebko resplendent in a white confection of a gown that made it look as if she had stepped into a gigantic wedding cake. Her “Juliette’s Waltz” was coy and flirtatious, rather than girlish, as she wove her way among a line of suitors. It was more like Musetta’s Waltz than Juliette’s. When Frère Laurent gave her the potion to simulate death, Netrebko began throwing herself around the stage and writhing around on the floor in an inappropriate repetition of her performance of Lucia di Lammermoor last season. Most importantly, she never seemed like a 14 year-old girl, and that didn’t fit with the character of Juliette or Juliet or even with the libretto. She appeared too comfortable at the ball, too worldly on her wedding night with Roméo. Netrebko’s voice also added to the maturity of her Juliette. Everything she did was technically perfect, but it seemed that there was a veil drawn over her voice that kept it from really breaking through into any lightness, youth, or uniqueness. During the wedding night scene, she sounded almost like a mezzo.

Villazon and Netrebko interacted well, although he is a much less self-conscious actor than she. One reviewer said that there was a lack of chemistry because Netrebko is too full of herself, but I think the problem actually is that she’s not a natural actress and is following the stage direction so closely that everything she does seems calculated and contrived. Though their voices are similar—both are fairly dark and lack a true cutting edge—it didn’t seem that their voices blended very well. Other parts of their anatomy seemed to blend better, much to the delight of all the perverts in the audience.

The rest of the cast was fine. Suzanna Guzman fulfilled her role as comic relief as the Nurse; she always does well in roles where character is more important than vocal beauty. Simone Alberghini yelled his way through the role of Capulet (and it must have been uncomfortable to play the father of the woman he is dating in real life). Reinhard Hagen was an imposing but kind Frère Laurent, and Anna Maria Panzarella sang her aria as Stephano well. Marc Barrard’s Mercutio got through his Queen Mab aria with an astonishing lack of charisma, and without the sprightly, golden spark and wit that Simon Keenlyside brings to the part and that Shakespeare intended the character to have.

The staging was one of the more impressive that I’ve seen at LA Opera. At first I thought it would be silly, since it look kind of like a Victorian train station, all metal stairs and balustrades and railings. These pieces moved around to form different scenes, and other props were added to suggest Juliette’s bedroom, Frère Laurent’s cell, a ballroom, Juliette’s tomb, or the garden. The only faults with the sets were that they were moved during the muscial interludes, which could get kind of noisy, and they seemed to absorb a lot of the sound. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is already inhospitable enough to opera without having a set that doesn’t bounce the sound back out to the audience.

Some other refreshing changes were that all the costumes appeared to be from the same period, in this case rather Dickensian, Victorian costumes, and that the production was refreshingly free of the ridiculous Peggy Hickey choreography we saw in Aïda. West Side Story style was kept to an extreme minimum, and the fights looked like actual violence instead of just messy pirouetting. The only hint of silly choreography was when Roméo was singing “Ange adorable” to Juliette, and their movements were mimed by three other couples in the background. One other low point was the bizarre choice to add a subplot with Lady Capulet and Tybalt. In the ballroom scene, Tybalt kisses Lady Capulet’s hand and appears to flirt with her, before Capulet drags her off, scolding her. After Tybalt dies, Lady Capulet weeps dramatically over his corpse until Capulet violently pushes her away. It seemed that the director was hinting that Lady Capulet and Tybalt were having an affair, and that just didn’t make any sense and has no basis either in the libretto or in Shakespeare.

Even though the douchebag behind me ruined the whole thing for me by saying before the opera started that Roméo and Juliette both die *rolls eyes*, I would say that Roméo et Juliette is my second-favorite performance of the LA Opera season so far, coming only after Bohème. And if Roberto Alagna hadn't been in Bohème, Roméo et Juliette would have been my hands-down favorite of the year. I especially liked Gounod’s love music; it’s very sensual without being saccharine as he sometimes can be. The only parts I didn’t care for were the waltzes, which seemed over-the-top and out-of-place in the context of the play, but since this production was updated to an era where waltzing was popular, it didn’t seem quite so anachronistic. Though now I wonder what a Romeo and Juliet opera would be like set to Elizabethan-style lute music. With Andreas Scholl as Romeo. Or Simon Keenlyside as Romeo and Andreas Scholl as Juliet. Nevermind.

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