The Royal Opera last revived its production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette ten years ago, with what were then known as the lovebirds, Gheorghiu and Alagna, who imparted their own kind of glamour to the work.
The Royal Opera last revived its production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette ten years ago, with what were then known as the lovebirds, Gheorghiu and Alagna, who imparted their own kind of glamour to the work. Nicolas Joël’s production badly needs some pepping up, since it is a desperately static and staid affair, as revived by Stephen Barlow, with some hyperactive running around on the part of the principals, while the chorus remain rooted to whichever spot they are on.
With the drab ‘medieval’ sets and gesturings of the kind that brought operatic direction into seemingly irreparable disrepute, they do nothing to give the illusion that time is passing at a tolerable rate, and the almost four hours of the opera seemed like a ghastly glimpse of eternity. That despite the energetic, rhythmically alert conducting of Daniel Oren, an admirable conductor whom we should hear much more of than we do. His conducting of 19th-century Italian operas has always seemed remarkable for his immersion in the idiom of each composer, and that was just as true of Gounod, whose limited orchestral palette is employed to express anticipations, the brief raptures of snatched meetings and the agonies of parting, with moderate success; Oren persuaded the orchestra to indulge in some luscious portamenti, and the strings in particular had a full-bodied warmth. But Tchaikovsky conveys all that infinitely more powerfully in 20 minutes in his great Overture, and adds far more thrilling fight music into the bargain.
Gounod seems to have been preoccupied with tasteful restraint to a comically extreme degree. The only thing that can rescue his would-be amorous insipidities is stylistically abandoned singing from the leading singers. One reason why the famous off-the-air Met recording from 1947 with Jussi Björling and Bidú Sayão is so thrilling is that they throw discretion to the winds and almost make their duets sound as if Puccini had recomposed them. Roméo boasts four love scenes, but who can remember anything about them? Gounod seems far more interested in getting the couple married, giving himself the chance to compose some more ‘devout’ music, and then killed off, where he can let himself go since there is no chance of anyone being happy.
The very popular Polish tenor Piotr Beczala made by far the greatest impression, partly by injecting some Italian ardour and vigour into his genteel music. Specialists might frown at sobs and gasps in Gounod, but how else to convey Roméo’s passions? Beczala, with his rich voice, his trim figure and his romantic acting made the strongest case for this music. The Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was a less adequate Juliette, though the thought of being entombed and waking to find herself surrounded by bleeding relatives was an ideal opportunity for her to let rip with some raucous top notes, and to writhe even more than she had from other provocations. This Juliette lacked youthfulness, and some of the traits that we have come to dread from Slavic sopranos are already in evidence; but her heart was in it.
The rest of the cast made little impression, though the Frère Laurent of Vitalij Kowaljow gave an indication of being worthy of more rewarding music. I had the feeling that even this opera’s devoted fans were disappointed, but it is hard to see what, except for the inert direction, was seriously wrong. Perhaps Gounod, whose position is never secure, is about to enter another phase of outmodedness.
A couple of evenings later, I saw the Jette Parker Young Artists in an altogether more enlivening affair, Haydn’s L’isola disabitata; though this 75-minute-long piece was almost destroyed by a lengthy interval, something no one wanted, though most of the audience felt impelled to clamber out of the Linbury Nibelheim, something which the nightmare layout of that place, in all respects ghastly, makes so lengthy that merely to evacuate and refill the auditorium takes 20 minutes. This merry piece tells of two sisters, marooned for 13 years on an island, one of them feeling betrayed by her betrothed, the other too young to know what she is missing; the betrothed and friend turn up, explanations are given, happiness is achieved. I wish the island hadn’t been a bog-standard post-nuclear site but, that apart, everything was fine.
These young artists really are that — they all sing and act equally well, and the thwarted passion of the older sister, the animal energy of the younger, and the weary caution, then eager advance, of the two men were caught with mature skill. Haydn wrote fully accompanied music for the recitatives which constitute most of this score, and the arias are as inventive as one might expect from the composer of The Creation. There is a lot of Storm and Stress here, appropriately, and the Southbank Sinfonia, under Volker Krafft, played with passion. For sceptics about Haydn’s operatic aptitude, like me, this was a telling rebuke — at any rate until the characters began to interact in the last ten minutes, when my scepticism was regrettably confirmed.