This review is written for the performance on Wednesday, January 4, 2017.
Romeo and Juliette are undeniably the most famous couple in all of western literature and quite possibly the world. In hands of the famous bard, the two star-crossed teens fighting for their love in the midst of a family feud is one filled with tremendous emotional weight and political intrigue. In the hands of Charles Gounod, the opera “Romeo et Juliette” is an extended love duet.
The opera maintains most of the events of Shakespeare’s masterwork, but the foundation of its structure is a whopping four love duets between the two leads and two counter punctual ensembles smack in the middle of it all. It is truly safe to say that without two incredibly talented artists to take on the title roles of Romeo and his beloved Juliette, this opera would sink rather quickly.
And despite some major problems, which we will get into later, the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Romeo et Juliette” soared thanks to the chemistry of its two leads Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau.
The two have been major operatic superstars for quite some time, but their artistic chemistry came to the fore a few seasons back when they became the ill-fated lovers in Massenet’s “Manon.” To put it succinctly, passion and intensity of that magnitude has been near-extinct at the Met in decades, despite the appearance of truly great artists on that stage. The two exhibited a wild abandon and fearlessness in their interactions with one another that was both sexy and emotionally captivating.
That chemistry remains in the Romeo et Juliette, albeit in a more chaste, and at times, nuanced manner. In Shakespeare, the two are young teens still figuring out their emotional realities in the midst of the political strife. Many singers forget this aspect and what we end up with is are young adults, the innocence never quite apparent.
From Flighty Girl to Sobering Woman
Damrau and Grigolo make it quite clear that these are teenagers from the off. As she rushes onstage for her big party, Damrau’s posture, the twirling and the unstoppable smile tell us she is a child. Her gaze darts around from one person to the next as she looks for someone to tease and have fun with. She is prim and proper but her curtseys are short and sweet as she looks to throw her energy elsewhere. As Paris stared at her with desire, she slouched over in a defensive stance that one would expect from a child. The flirtatious gestures he threw at her were met with twitches and unease.
She took an equally playful vocal approach to her Juliette. Gounod’s writing does wonders for Juliette’s characterization, giving her coloratura passages that emphasize her emotional instability and joviality at the same time. And in Damrau’s hands those coloratura passages were all the more unpredictable in their execution. She would throw her voice around from soft to loud throughout the famed aria “Je veux vivre”, pushing the tempi and slowing them down with such ease and abundance that it added a sense of unpredictability and childishness to her character. She was literally playing with the music and her audience.
But then things changed rather abruptly the moment she fell in love with Romeo, the young girl growing up quickly and adapting to her situation even more poignantly. She flirted rather openly with Grigolo throughout their first duet until eventually the two succumbed to that first kiss, the singing growing more docile as they reached that point of no return. From there Damrau’s singing took on a far more reserved quality that contrasted greatly with the rambunctiousness early on. It had quite an incredible dramatic impact on many levels. It emphasized her character maturity, provided dramatic counterpoint to her partner and made her own emotional explosions all the more resonant. When she learns Romeo’s true name, Damrau’s voice pierced through the auditorium with pointed sound and bite. We hadn’t heard her sing this way to that point and it created true emotional weight for the character. Moments later she was pacing around the balcony, her voice subdued and introspective, pulling the viewer attention to her plight and internal conflict.
Moments of bliss with Romeo retained this relaxed quality, but as the stakes rose and her luck ran out, Damrau’s Juliette took on a more frantic complexion, her voice growing in power that climaxed in the rousing “Potion aria.” Damrau’s approach here followed Juliette’s fear quite acutely. She maintained her distance from the potion, stalking it from a distance, her singing as pianissimo as it had been the entire note, the phrases rising and then falling with trepidation. Then suddenly she found strength, rushed to the potion and prepared to drink it, her voice gushing with gusto and power. But right before the defining moment, she shut the container threw it back down and rushed away as she spoke of her fear of being alone in the tomb with spirits. Her voice restrained itself once more, rising only to express the fears on occasion as she moved further and further upstage, buried by the massive scene around her. But then at her lowpoint, she rushed back toward the “bed,” throwing in a carefree twirl, before launching back into the decisive moment of the aria, this time moving right at the potion, her voice even stronger than the first enunciation of “Romeo, je bois a toi (Romeo I drink to you).”
Grigolo’s Growing Emotional Turbulence
Grigolo’s Romeo was an angsty teen from the start, strutting around, hunched over aimlessly about the stage as he pined for Rosalinda. He showed no restraint in his singing, letting his voice whip about with intensity and unstoppable clarity. This only intensified after his meeting with Juliette, though Grigolo’s youthfulness became all the more apparent as Damrau’s Juliette grew more mature. While you often sensed they were perfect together, it was these prominent contrasts between them that truly sowed the tragedy of the drama and added nuance to the romance as a whole.
Taking advantage of his athletic physique, while also exposing Romeo’s risk-taking self, Grigolo climbed up the balcony at one point in a moment that kept the audience aghast (it should be interesting to see if subsequent interpreters of the role take this risk or play things a bit more coy). These kinds of moments rely show just how exciting and insightful Grigolo can be and he certainly matched that with an unstoppable stream of sound that is easily the most beautiful singing that Met audiences have heard in this repertoire in quite some time. He floated up to the tenorial stratosphere with alluring piannissimi, exploring the delicate side of his hero, particularly at the start of his “O leve toi soleil.” But he threw out the full intensity of his voice on the climactic “Parait, astre pure et charmant,” the energy flying into the seats enough to excite the listener with his rapture.
As the dramatic pressure grew, Grigolo’s Romeo was all the more charged leading to an exciting duel with Thibault that saw his physical prowess and energy dominate the stage.
But there can be no denying that the best moments for both singers came when they were onstage together, their vocal and emotional bond truly immersive. Their first meeting saw them play about, Grigolo falling over as he begged for a chance and Damrau walking over him in a subtle game of cat-and-mouse. The balcony scene climaxed with a mesmerizing reach toward one another, Grigolo hanging perilously on a column he climbed while Damrau exerting herself to reach him. If the kernel of the drama could be defined by one moment, it would be this one. Two people risking it all to make it work and yet not quite being able to bridge the gaps completely.
The wedding scene saw them more comfortable physically before the famed love-scene saw them unable to take their hands off one another, all while singing and phrasing as one. This is as close to vocal sex as you can get – two singers matching each other line for line, note for note, accent for accent, their voices in communion just as their bodies are.
Their death scene [Spoiler Alert] was beautiful for its relative simplicity. With their love past its adolescent stage, their interaction settled more subtle as they held each other and accepted their respective fates. The singing also quieted down, drawing the listener into a more intimate realm. At the moment of their death, they both finally learned to be adults and despite both taking the irrational decision to commit suicide, the fact that they ultimately choose to do it together gave the relationship stronger emotional resonance. Watching the dying Grigolo crawl toward his dead Juliette as he slowly but surely expired, longing for one final kiss, his eyes deadened, was a truly visceral icing on a delicious cake.
The supporting cast all did their respective parts while Gianandrea Noseda’s interpretation of the opera took on a more Italiante style. The tempi ebbed and flowed more extremely, particularly in duets and the lyricism also had a greater elasticity. At times certain orchestral colors were allowed to shine, particularly the woodwinds during the lover’s hymn to love at the start of Act 4. The winds played almost in consort with them, giving the scena a more fantastical feel.
A Bartlett Sher Production
As for the Bartlett Sher production, it’s a typical Bartlett Sher production. Aside from seeing his usual assortment of black leather jackets for male protagonists, colorful poofy period dresses for every woman onstage, orange and other fruit stands, unused chairs and bed sheets, you also walk away with the usual sense that the production is unfinished. In some of his productions, Sher introduces the audience to a concept (the glass castle in “Otello,” the arms race in “L’Elisir,” the Fellini-esque ambience in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”) that he either abandons halfway through or simply fails to fully develop into something revealing or insightful about the work. Unfortunately there is no such concept at work in Gounod’s opera and the best one can say about Sher’s production is that it has solid choreography during the fight scenes. Whereas it is quite clear who Romeo and Juliette are to Grigolo and Damrau, the same cannot be said for Sher. One would wonder if two singers that have less chemistry than the aforementioned duo, through no fault of their own, would fare particularly well in this production.
In the best-directed productions, the director’s clear vision is so potent that it provides artists with the foundation to truly rise to the top with their own given perspectives. Such examples at the Met include Willy Decker’s “La Traviata,” Laurent Pelly’s “Manon,” Richard Eyre’s “Carmen” and Anthony Minghella’s “Madama Butterfly” among others. All too often Sher’s productions come to life thanks to the magic of individual performances rather than a true sense of theatrical cohesiveness. In his defense, the production is coming to the Met after its initial premiere eight years ago in Salzburg and hence features the work of a director that was still in development on the operatic stage, his best ideas potentially waiting to be mined and marinated. But at the same time eight years is a long time to fully flesh a concept and on the evidence of the Met’s production in 2016, it seems that there never was one.
Many have complained about some productions bringing down the curtains to facilitate transitions from scene to scene, but I for one wonder why this was not employed in this particular production when some scene transitions, to be frank, are awkward at best. There is nothing quite so baffling as seeing the “dead” Juliette, get up and walk herself to her tomb when rolling her onto a board and having a few strong supers carry her to the tomb would have been more effective, and less jarring, from a purely narrative standpoint. Seeing supers carry chairs onto the stage to change the scene is truly lacking in creativity and the best way to take a viewer out of the experience. Hearing the glorious music to the famed love duet at the start of Act 4 accompanied by a few maids making a bed is about as unromantic as it gets and a huge step back from seeing the curtain rise and seeing the image of lovers suspended on a bed in midair, their romance at its emotional and symbolic highpoint, as was the case with the last production. Say what you will about the emphasis on symbolism in the previous production by Guy Joosten, but it certainly left audiences with an emblematic image that is not easily forgettable. Sher’s most unforgettable images are the ones you want to forget.
For all of the theatrical and overall creative shortcomings, this evening is one that belongs to the interpreters of eponymous characters. The chemistry that Damrau and Grigolo engender is too contagious to ignore and that makes this “Romeo et Juliette” a truly thrilling and, at times, sexy experience.