Romeo et Juliette

Charles Gounod, Libtretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Roberto Alagna and Anna Netrebko Credit: Ken Howard
Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna Credit: Ken Howard
Roberto Alagna and Anna Netrebko Credit: Ken Howard

It is a salutary thought that if Friar John had not been caught in a lockdown and quarantined, he would have been able to deliver a letter and Romeo and Juliet would not have died and nobody would have heard of them; and theatre, opera, ballet and film would have been all the poorer.

Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette premièred in Paris in 1867, the year of the French World Exhibition, and the city was packed with tourists. The opera was a smash-hit and has continued to be the most popular operatic version of Shakespeare’s play.

Guiy Joosten’s production, conducted by Placido Domingo, was seen at The Metropolitan New York in 2007. The romantic melodies, and there are many of them, are sung by Roberto Alagna and Anna Netrebko.

Juliette, on her first appearance, comes across as a high-spirited girl, a bit of a coquette, who clearly states she doesn’t want to get married and that she wants to live it up and have a good time. She sounds very French and, as directed by Joosten, is so vivacious you would think you were watching some frivolous operetta.

Alagna and Netrebko are later discovered in a bed, which is floating high above the stage in a starry sky. It is certainly a lyrical way of saying Romeo and Juliette’s marriage has been consummated. Their love-making is viewed from above them and in such close-up, the camera turns us viewers at home into voyeurs.

For the rest of the time, the bed is permanently on a plinth, which is reached by steps, and is placed centre-stage, as if it were an installation at an art exhibition. It has no reality whatsoever.

Juliette gets very hysterical when her father tells her she is getting married to Paris. Afraid to tell him she is already married to Romeo, she has to choose between drinking a suspect potion, which Friar Lawrence says will send her into a deep sleep, and killing herself. This scene is the opera’s high spot and Netrebko’s singing takes the production to another level.

A major change in the story is that when Juliette has taken the potion, she remains awake and does not collapse until she has been dressed by her bridesmaids and her father and Paris have arrived to take her to the wedding.

The other major change takes place in the final scene in the tomb. The change is not original; and indeed, it was the norm for a time on the London stage in the 18th century. Romeo naturally thinks Juliette is dead and Alagna sings beautifully over her supposed dead body. Romeo then drinks the poison he has brought with him for such an emergency. But Juliette wakes before it takes effect so that they can have what operagoers want and that is another duet (so much better than sex) before she stabs herself.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch