Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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SATURDAY, JAN. 21, 2017

There were possibilities for enjoying opera in Northern Colorado on a Saturday in mid-January. Internationally, the Met’s HD program broadcast Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette to around 350,000 people worldwide from its stage in New York.  At the local level, Opera Fort Collins staged a pleasurable concert of opera numbers with chorus in the evening at Colorado State.

Roméo et Juliette at the Cinema, 2017

In April, 2016, Peggy and I saw Bartlett Sher’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Chicago Lyric Opera with Susannah Phillips and Joseph Callea in the lead roles.   The production has now moved to the Metropolitan Opera and was broadcast in the HD series on January 21, 2017, with a different cast headlined by Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo.  Same production.  New cast and conductor.  Direct cinema transmission.  It was a different world.  I wrote some of this review after the Chicago production in 2016; the rest is new.

Romance and religion were the core factors in Gounod's life and music.  He was a church organist who trained as a priest, and decided to devote himself to the stage instead of the altar at the last moment before taking his vows.  His operas are filled with Catholic religious sentiment alongside love and sex, a heady mix in the nineteenth century; we see it in his two most popular operas, Faust and Roméo et Juliette, but also in lesser known works like Mireille and La nonne sanglante.  It is difficult for modern audiences to feel Gounod's Catholic fervor and religiosity, perhaps, and sometimes Gounod's sentiment (what we, looking back, might call Victorian sentimentality) got the better of him, but he was also a marvelous melodist, and his two best-known works are regularly revived for the catchy ear-worm tunes he seems to spin out so easily. 

Roméo et Juliette was a concoction by the practiced libretto-team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, where it opened in 1867, and where the prima donna, Mme. Miolan-Carvalho, was the wife of the theater's director.  The librettists followed Shakespeare fairly closely, with certain changes: it was necessary to have a role for the mezzo on staff, so the pants role of Stephano was created; a ballet was required, so Gounod made one for Act IV, centered around Juliet's aborted marriage to Tybalt (cut in the Met production).  Mme. Miolan-Carvalho felt she needed a showy piece for her entrance, so Gounod composed the waltz-aria "Je veux vivre dans un rêve" ('I want to live a dream') so that she could show off.  Also, it was absolutely necessary that the lovers have a final duet, so Juliette wakes up before Romeo dies of the poison he has taken, in time for a final restatement of the love theme (with two harps) and for the lovers to ask forgiveness from God since suicide is a no-no in the Catholic church.

Roméo et Juliette was a hit from the first; it moved over to the Opéra-Comique in 1871, and in 1881, it finally moved to the Opèra itself.  The ballet dropped out of most productions early, except at the Opèra, and the wonderful aria that Gounod had composed for Juliette in Act IV was dropped before opening night.  Only in our times has it returned to most productions.  The general view that this opera is a duet in four acts, with a catchy waltz song came early.  "One remembers the work as a series of very pretty duets, varied by a sparkling waltz air for Juliet...," wrote one critic after the London premiere in 1867.  In fact, Gounod varied the intimate moments, the love duets (there are four), not so much with Juliet's waltz as with a couple of large crowd scenes with big ensembles.  The opera proper opens with a big party at the Capulets house, crowned by that waltz aria for Juliet's 'coming out'.  It is here that Romeo first sees Juliet and that the antagonisms between the Capulet and Montague families comes to the fore.  Even before that, there is a somber prologue, roughly equivalent to Shakespeare's prologue.  Then, the second scene of Act III explodes with the anger between the young men of the two families, culminating with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, and Romeo's exile.  This scene, with a massive chorus and big ensemble led by Romeo does reflect the context that Shakespeare gives us of overly rich and lazy young thugs--gangs if you will, full of violence and too much testosterone, which backgrounds the romantic intimacy of the love between the doomed pair.  In the ideal production, we should be impressed by those big, dramatic scenes as well as "the very pretty love duets, varied by a sparkling waltz air."


In Bartlett Sher's new production the big crowd scenes stand out, and the love duets and the arias, which seemed to me to be less convincing on stage, were much better in the movies, where close-ups could make the intimate scenes seem ‘intimate’, when they did not in the house, played out on a raised platform in a town square.  I still took exception to the wedding night scene played out on white fabric on top of the platform “outdoors,” but the the other scenes gained intimacy from the camera work.

Sher and Set Designer Michael Yeargan give us a massive, dark and realistic set of building facades and a piazza with a Roman column, which might be Verona, but might be anywhere.  The buildings are uniformly dark, and the set does not shift during the opera.  A lot of color is given in the crowd scenes in the lavish costumes by Catherine Zuber, who for some reason completely unknown to me, moves the time frame to the eighteenth century rather than the Renaissance.  She said in an interview that she was influenced by Fellini’s film “Casanova.” Pretty costumes; wrong era, although a million productions of Roméo and Juliet on stage and screen have taught us that it hardly matters: the great story could be anytime, anywhere.


Sher handles crowd scenes very well, and the sword fights are the best staged (by B.H. Barry) that I have ever seen in an opera.  And the opera moved from act to act, scene to scene without a break (except for the one intermission), much as it would have done in Shakespeare’s time.  Watching it in the movie theater, I was struck by the production’s pacing—the way Sher plans the action around the music’s tempos, orchestration and feeling as much as on the words and plot.  It was a very sensitive production in this regard, and in the directing of every single character in the opera, major and minor, principal and chorus member.  In this sense, Sher’s production was a made-for-HD production down to the last glance of the most minor character, quite a difference from the old-fashioned and stolid Nabucco that we saw in the Met series last week.

Still, it is really up to the principals to make us believe in the chemistry that attracts these immortal lovers against all odds, and Grigolo and Damrau had it in spades.  Vittorio Grigolo looks like Romeo should—young, handsome, athletic.  His acting was a dream: you see the dark shadow of tragedy cross his face even in the early moments when he first meets Juliet.  He grows up before our eyes.  And better yet, he sings wonderfully, especially his big aria “Ah! levez-toi, soleil” (Shakespeare’s “Arise, fairest sun in heaven”) was splendid and colored with passion and foreboding.


Her Juliet was just as good, even if she does look a little more like a middle-aged mother (which she is) than a fourteen-year old (only Olivia Hussey in the 1965 Zeffirelli film of the play fit that bill).  She is however a wonderful actress and made Juliet’s trajectory from child to woman believable.  And she and Grigolo exuded ‘chemistry’.  At the curtain call, he literally swept her up in his arms, and she seemed genuinely surprised and happy.  Vocally, she was excellent (if not quite like Anna Netrebko, whom I remember in this role).  Juliet’s role is a difficult blend of coloratura (in the waltz aria), delicate lyricism (in the duets) and dramatic impulse (in the marvelous sleeping potion aria, "Amour, ranime mon courage"--'Love, shore up my resolve').  Damrau seemed a bit tentative in the waltz and her trills are there but not outstanding, but she is a very fine singer and handled the lyric and dramatic parts superbly.

The secondary roles were mostly excellent with each singer creating a believable and distinct character; a standout was mezzo Virginie Verrez  as Stephano.  Her/his little mocking aria "Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle" ('What are you doing, white turtledove') was acted very well—she is a natural on stage, and adept with a sword. I liked Elliot Madore as Mercutio very much; he was as good with a sword as his baritone voice. Diana Montague was the nurse.  Only bass Mikhail Petrenko as Friar Lawrence tended to look at the conductor more than at anyone on stage with him.  The conductor, by the way, was Gianandrea Noseda, and he kept the great Met orchestra and chorus on their toes, and he almost managed to make some of Gounod’s more cloying melodies sound good.

A decade ago, I saw this opera in Los Angeles with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko, who did it in many cities around that time.  They were wonderful--young, heedless, full of energy.  You believed in them as the most famous lovers in literature (or opera) and you believed in what can seem a creaky old work. It was wonderfully sung (especially Netrebko) and acted, and at the end you wept for the lovers' fate.  At the Chicago Lyric last year, it was all pretty and moved along, but caring about the fate of the prima donna and famous tenor on stage was not even a question because they were just that--a prima donna, and a tenor who had dined on too much jambon.  At the Met, the same production came alive with youth, vigor and wonderful singing.  It was one of the best Met HD productions in a long time—not to be missed.  There was a good crowd at the Cinemark in Ft. Collins on Saturday and there is an Encore showing on Wednesday night at 6:30 PM.  If you did not see it, find a nearby movie theater and go.

Opera Ft. Collins: A Night at the Opera Chorus

In the evening, Peggy and I drove to Colorado State for OFC’s choral concert.  The local forces included the OFC chorus, a dedicated, volunteer and truly excellent group.  Eleven members of the Fort Collins Symphony were augmented by pianist Adam Torres, who also played an electronic keyboard when needed.  For the solo parts there were several fine Guest Artists: Rose Sawvel, Thomas Erik Angerhoffer, Samantha Staggs and Allan Adair.  The nine ‘sets’ were not opera choruses per se, but scenes with substantial choral interventions, including pieces from Traviata, Lucia, Carmen, Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, Figaro, Otello, Die Fledermaus, and La rondine.  I especially enjoyed the beautiful excerpt from Puccini’s La rondine.  That work which stands on an interesting line between operetta and opera and is filled with beautiful melody is certainly one that OFC could think about taking up in the future.

I was also particularly struck by the sextet from Lucia and the drinking song from Verdi’s Otello.  I actually started tapping my feet during the Otello excerpt—something very unusual for me with that opera, but the singing was that infectious while the chorus sound particularly involved.  But if this was a concert centered on choral participation, they were always good.  Gerald Holbrook’s good work as chorus master showed and Wes Kenny, as usual, held everything together.

Many, but hardly all, of the excerpts were drinking songs or toasts.  Wouldn’t it be fun to do a concert like that at one of the area’s local breweries, and the audience could listen with beer stein or wine glass in hand!

There was a small crowd in attendance—about a hundred people in the audience.  Perhaps the enormous Women’s Marches in Denver as elsewhere in the country kept people away; perhaps there will be more at the repeat concert on Sunday afternoon.  I hope so.  Such professionalism and great music deserve larger audiences.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network