London's been doing quite well for Gounod this Autumn, and the composer's version of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers follows on at the Royal Opera from his take on Goethe's Faust, which has only just closed at ENO. Both works keep a hold on the repertory despite the fact that Gounod's reputation as a composer has long been in the doldrums, and the necessary simplifications he makes to the dramatic and – particularly in Faust – philosophical subtlety of the originals only serve to emphasise the easy-going, slightly soft-focus musical palette he tends to employ—one, as Steven Huebner notes in his booklet essay, with the occasional dash of Verdian colour.
If Roméo et Juliette seems to rely a little too heavily on the story's position in the vernacular, particularly in the clunky exposition of Act One, it nevertheless flows very well as an evening in the theatre. Dramatically superfluous set numbers, such as Mercutio's 'Mab, la reine des mensonges' aria, where orchestral filigree takes over from Shakespeare's original verbal virtuosity, and especially the travesti Page's ditty about doves and vultures, are at least light and entertaining. The love music perhaps arrives a little late, but it is nevertheless difficult to resist in its sweet sentimentality and subtle scoring. Having given his bass devil most of the best tunes in Faust, however, Gounod's inspiration seems to dry up when it comes to the dreary music given to Friar Laurence and Juliette's father, the Duke of Verona. And unfortunately it seems as though this is the music from which Nicholas Joël's stolidly uninteresting production draws its inspiration.
The production first came to Covent Garden in 1994, and has only previously been revived once, as a vehicle for Alagna and Gheoghiu in 2000. It seems even older than that, however, and revival director Stephen Barlow has not been able to inject it with much vitality. Carlo Tommasi's set consists of bulky revolving blocks with various attachments for the different scenes, and while the idea makes sense, it is executed with little verve and, as dully lit by Bruno Boyer, looks cheap and uninteresting. One exception comes in the colourful and infinitely more imaginative church settings of Act Five, although the allegorical tableau of lute and lilies placed downstage for the final scene seems incongruous. Lavish costumes are provided for the principals and chorus which only underline the unimaginative nature of the sets, while the acting and Personenregie seem to take us back to nearer the middle of the twentieth century. Stock hand gestures and stand-and-deliver expression are dominant, while the positioning of the lovers in the balcony scene demands rather more suspension of disbelief than today's audiences are used to.
The deficiencies in production and direction would melt into insignificance if, as in the last revival, the cast commanded enough attention on their own terms. The Roméo and Juliette here have only this summer sung the roles together at the Salzburg Festival, but are still a long way off their predecessors in terms of charisma or chemistry.
Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze, making her house debut, has a fine voice: big, secure and dark. It has a rather strident quality, however, loses focus below forte, and seems ill-suited to the bel canto repertoire that is apparently a staple for her. Her French is unforgivably poor, and while she was exciting in her (non-)death scene, the Waltz Song was a rather uncomfortable jumble of mangled vowels and fruity vibrato. Piotr Beczala is much more of a known quantity, and his easy lyric tenor was in fine form. It's still arguable, however, whether he is able to take on the mantle of star tenor which seems increasingly to be placed upon him. The voice itself is a size too small for the heroic demands of this role, and although his French is better that Machaidze's, there is still little sense of style. As such, while the basic vocal mechanics impressed, the whole performance remained strangely unseductive.
The rest of the casting was likewise solid, rather than particularly memorable. There was another debut from Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, a singer with a couple of Wotans under his belt (Los Angeles and Dresden) who was rather wasted, one senses, as Friar Laurence. Alfie Boe turned in a very useful Tybalt, but Stéphane Degout's Mercutio was disappointingly unimaginative in his aria. Other roles were well taken, with Simon Neal making an imposing debut as the Duke of Verona. Throughout the evening the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well for Daniel Oren, and the conductor lingered daringly but effectively in some of the orchestral introductions and brought out the drama in the later scenes powerfully. The weaker scenes, however, were left to fend for themselves, particularly in Act One, where the performance seemed more dutiful than affectionate.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos © The Royal Opera/Bill Cooper