Roméo et Juliette
Charles Gounod, Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is an obvious choice for musical adaptation. Prokofiev wrote a ballet, Berlioz a dramatic symphony, while Tchaikovsky and Bernstein amongst others got there too in very different ways.
For this New Year's Eve Gala performance, the Met chose the romantic opera written on this theme by Charles Gounod.
Earlier in the season, Placido Domingo had conducted and Roberto Alagna starred but the 31st December audience did not need to feel slighted by a company that was led by the magical Anna Netrebko, who is worth the entrance price (up to $550 without the gala dinner) alone.
One might expect the Russian soprano to sing perfectly, which she does, having ample opportunity to show off her vocal range. She also conveys a bouncing girlish enthusiasm for life in the early scenes, which soon turns into passionate devotion to a man whose love she knows will cost her life.
Unusually, the playbill (programme) does not credit the production with a director, though Guy Joosten is named as producer. In theatrical terms, it looks sumptuous but the acting and staging are often very much more for effect than naturalistic performance.
Johannes Leiacker's design is gorgeous, setting the action within a six storey, curtained proscenium. There, he uses large trompe l'oueil woodcuts seemingly influenced by Albrecht Dürer and MC Escher. These are backed by a circular screen, which follows the pattern of a day, from mist through sun to moon- and star-light as the plot progresses.
The long opening at the Capulet's ball features a chorus that must number close to 100. There, in rose pink party frock, Miss Netrebko's Juliette is introduced to her prospective husband, Paris.
However, disguised by masks, the hated Montagus arrive. They stand out more than one might imagine, thanks to costumier, Jorge Jara's colour scheme. The period dress is divided between reds and blues so that Roméo is in pale blue throughout.
The love at first sight does not please the hotheads in both camps but soon leads to a solemn marriage ceremony led by Robert Lloyd's rich, bass Frère Laurent.
Only thereafter do factional interests boil over in a fight to a double death, as Mercutio (Nathan Gunn) and the long-haired Tybalt (an impressive Marc Heller) perish.
This leads to a post-interval scene of great beauty, as the young couple consummate their marriage in a bed suspended before a plethora of Van Gogh stars.
This is also their first chance to duet together seriously and these couplings show off tenor Roméo (Matthew Polenzani) at his very best. He is a chunky man, very much cast in operatic tradition for his fine singing rather than his ability to act.
The Friar then tries to save the day with tragic consequences in a lovely ending that is still as topical today as it was when Shakespeare came up with the story.
The Met's Roméo et Juliette delights for more than just the superlative Miss Netrebko. The orchestra, on this occasion under Paul Nadler, does their bit, the overall visual effect is never less than pleasing and the main singers are also complemented by a sweet cameo from mezzo Isabel Leonard in a breeches part as Roméo's servant.
The Met has its own multi-lingual translation system for each visitor and on this occasion, guests were able to enjoy a highly poetic (occasionally Shakespearean) rendering of the French original into English. Someone else will have to comment on the German and Spanish.
What a wonderful way to spend New Year's Eve - and that is without the champagne Gala from which, one imagines, the wealthy attendees will still be recovering as this review is penned.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher