On New Year’s Eve, the Metropolitan Opera opened a new production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” The result was a mixed bag with two bright stars heading the cast. The production was a dreary classically fitted take that lacked clarity of vision and ultimately dragged the show.
After a few months, the Met has revived the production with better results. The reason in part is due to the cast and conductor that it has put together for the second run.
If there was a star on this night it was French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who had a clear understanding of Gounod’s score. He began with a loud fortissimo that foreshadowed the impending doom of the two protagonists and immediately gave time to the chorus to depict the events. He then gave the celli a bit of time so they could relish in the love melody. Once the party got started Villaume conducted with vital energy emphasizing the waltz-like movement of the choral music.
He then created a clear demarcation between the waltz and Capulet’s music. His music had a more accentuated and rhythmic feel emphasizing the rigidness in the character. That was even more emphasized in the fourth act when he is telling Juliette who she must marry. There Villaume emphasized the accents in the violin and cello’s music allowing the structure to be heard.
That was quite the opposite with all of Roméo and Juliette’s music. Viillaume allowed them to express and slowed tempi to heighten their emotions. One of the most impressive moments came right before Juliette stabs herself. He let out all of the orchestra’s power which enhanced the dramatic moment in the score. Another incredible moment came during potion aria where Villaume emphasized the gallop rhythm in the violins and created a very jagged feel emphasizing Juliette’s emotional imbalance.
But the brilliance in Villaume’s conducting came from the duets. Gounod’s music brilliantly shows the evolution of the couple’s relationship over four duets. The first is a flirtatious waltz during which Villaume emphasized the 3/4 rhythm allowing for it be more like a dance between two young people. The second duet, which is the famous balcony scene, saw an emphasis on the dreamy quality as he started with a piano in the violins and increased it slowly to a mezzo forte. He also gave prominence to the harp’s arpeggios allowing the sublime to take over. The third duet, the most famous starts with the cellos playing the love theme. The principle cellist’s interpretation featured beautifully balanced slides that allowed the music to sing. In the first part of the duet “Nuit d’hyméné,” Villaume drove the tempo forward which helped to emphasize that passion that had grown between the two lovers. The second part of the duet gave the singers some time before once again driving the tempo without ever interfering with their interpretations. If the third duet was a showcase of passion, the fourth was filled with desperation. Villaume pulled the full force out of the orchestra never overpowering the singers but still getting through the tragedy of these two lovers.
The perfect Juliette
While Villaume was the leader of the night, Pretty Yende held her own with a youthful Juliette. The minute Yende stepped on stage she beamed energy and youth. She twirled around in clear distraction and fun. But what stood out was the incredible coloratura roulades in her opening aria “Ah! Je veux vivre.” She swiftly went through the Waltz clearly relishing in each line, never slowly the tempo down. This was young Juliette who was just enjoying her youth and not wanting to be bothered.
And her approach did not change when she met her Roméo, Stephen Costello. When she saw him, she ran off stage and then quickly back to give him some looks. During their first duet, Yende sang with a clear pianissimo and, like Villaume, emphasized the waltz structure giving more prescence to the flirtatious quality of the duet. But this changed when she learned he was Roméo. During her brief solo where she mourned this outcome, Yende’s voice took on a darker quality. However, the sweetness in the voice remained and that allowed it to be clear that this was a youth who felt hopeless in this circumstance.
The second act saw Yende let out more of a lyrical sound particularly when she told Roméo “Je t’aime,” a passionate rush of sound coming from her. That was once again repeated in the wedding scene as she climbed to the high C at the end of the quartet, expressing the joy in her marriage with Roméo.
In the fourth act, most sopranos try to transform Juliette into a more mature woman. However, that was not the case with Yende. During the duet, there was a show of innocence as she caressed her Roméo and guided him to clean his hands and forgave him. When Roméo left her and Capulet told her that she has to marry Paris, Yende moved towards Frère Laurent and Gertrud looking for an escape. However, Yende’s Juliette emphasized a hopelessness that most 16-year-old girls would feel. And during her Potion aria “Amour, ranime mon courage,” Yende let out all her power in the voice. However, while her voice seemed like this was a Juliette that had matured, her erratic movements upstage and downstage and her casual looks at the potion showed the fear in this Juliette. At the end of the aria, Yende held out her high C until the music finished which was a showstopping moment.
In her final duet, Yende’s Juliette beamed the same energy from the beginning when she realized that she has been reunited with Roméo. The voice once again took on a bright color, particularly as she climbed to the highest notes in the score. But when she realized that Roméo has taken poison, Yende’s voice took on that darker hue. The brightness was muted and she sang with a pianissimo sound.
During Yende’s final moment, before she vows to murder herself, her voice beamed out that same energy. Her death expressed some joy to be with her Romeo at death.
In the role of Roméo, Stephen Costello had an impressive evening as he sang ardently. His Roméo was a passionate man who had a hard time controlling his emotions, from his first encounter with Juliette where he played with her lying down on the floor to the second actor balcony scene where climbed on the column to reach for Juliette. His athletic fight choreography also emphasized this impassioned Roméo as he moved uncontrollably after Tybalt. His final death scene also expressed his quickstart behavior as he chugged down the poison as if taking a shot before chucking the bottle aside.
Vocally he kept with this characteristic, holding out notes for as long as possible. While his “Ah! Lève-toi, soleil!” had a rocky start, he started with a beautiful piano phrase before crescendoing with the musical line. He repeated it the same way twice before moving onto his final B flat, a delicate disembodied sound. He did the same thing at the end of the third act concertato when he was told he must go into exile. The final C, which soared over the orchestra was held out until the orchestra finished its music. In his final aria, Costello extended each line as if he did not want to let go, especially on the note befor the potion. It was truly a heartbreaking and easily his best moment in the whole night.
A Stellar Supporting Cast
Leading the supporting cast was Paula Murrihy as Stephano. She captured the character’s swagger and during “Que fais tu, blanche tourterelle” she differentiated each section. The A section she sang with a humorous tone, emphasizing each consonant. The B section was sung with a more agitated sound and yet a strong sense of balance to keep the aria light. She concluded with an exquisite High C.
Margaret Lattimore lent extra comedy to her Gertrude with her booming voice while Sean Panikkar’s Tybalt showed a promising tenor in development. Yunpeng Wang had a solid tone in the role of Mercutio and he was agile, particularly in his duel scene. Matthew Rose also came through as a sympathetic Frère Laurent as he sang with delicacy.
What remains troubling, however, is this production which lacks any type of inspiration. The scene changes between the end of Act three and Act four demonstrate a lack of creativity and distract from the exquisite music. That the audience has to see the chorus walk off set is unacceptable even for regional companies who prefer to bring down a curtain. If theatricality is what the Met wanted, the previous production by Guy Joosten, even with it flimsy costumes, expressed an overall better cohesive concept.
Still, credit must be given to those that deserve it. The Metropolitan Opera has once again assembled two of the best interpreters in the roles with a conductor who understands Gounod’s masterpiece.