In 1868, the hottest ticket in Europe was the premiere of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”, at Paris’ Theatre Lyrique on the Seine’s East Bank (just a few hundred feet West from where the present Theatre du Chatelet is located). It was one of the most successful opening nights of any opera in history, with European royalty and 19th century celebrities coming from afar to take part in it.
The opera that Gounod is best known for, “Faust”, was not considered a great success at its first premiere nine years previously, but it soon became the most popular opera in the world, in part because it introduced to opera what I call “sweet melody” – erotic sentiments expressed melodiously in a seductive setting. Nothing in the experience of European opera goers had prepared them for the voluptuous Garden Scene in “Faust” where the language of seduction O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux is sung to such irresistable music.
In the next several years, as audiences swooned over “Faust”, Gounod tried other directions, but ultimately the public demanded another opera with more seduction and more “garden scenes”. He chose to create an opera from the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which the mutual sexual attraction of two teenagers was the motivation for all action. No fewer than five plausibly situated love duets (quintupling the yield of “Faust”) were created.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Opera enlisted British stage director Ian Judge to create a legendary new production that starred Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko, conducted by Frederic Chaslin. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Opera opened the season with a revival of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” that provided the sensational debut of soprano Nino Machaidze from the Republic of Georgia (for my review, see Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009). It was followed up earlier this year with yet another Machaidze triumph (see my review at Partying in L. A.: Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011.)
[Below: Juliet Capulet (Nino Machaidze, left) becomes enamored with a stranger she discovers is her family’s enemy, Romeo Montague (Vittorio Grigolo, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Across the continent, Los Angeles Opera General Director Placido Domingo conducted a series of performances of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in which the tenor lead was the European sensation, Vittorio Grigolo (see my review at The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008). With the Los Angeles Opera planning a revival of its successful Ian Judge production of “Romeo et Juliette” , the stars became aligned for Domingo to bring together Machaidze and Grigolo in Los Angeles as the star-crossed lovers.
The result was glorious. Machaidze’s brilliant coloratura, so effective for her previous Donizetti and Rossini assignments in Los Angeles, was spectacular in this role that encompasses the coloratura fireworks of the first act Valse, highly dramatic singing for the story’s darker moments, and irresistable lyricism in her love duets.
Her Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, has emerged not just as an international celebrity and super-star, but brings to the table an extraordinary lyric tenor voice that – at this stage of his career (he is age 34) – is perfect for late 19th century French opera, and for the Romantic heroes of Donizetti and early Verdi. That would be sufficient to assure my attendance at the performance, but he also brings acting acumen, physical athleticism and arguably as winsome a physique as any male singer in opera (which Judge’s production used to maximum advantage).
[Below: As an example of Ian Judge’s swift scene changes, black-cloaked citizens of Verona who are mourning the deaths of Romeo and Juliet in the opera’s prologue, become the revelers at the Capulets’ ball in the opera’s first act; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Judging the Gounod “Romeo”
Realizing how expansive a phrase as “the 20th century viewpoint” might be, it does seem a defensible statement that for several decades opera companies gave relatively little attention to Gounod’s second most popular opera, considering it (if at all) “old-fashioned”. But, as I have noted elsewhere, the operatic voices that are prevalent today include many that fit nicely the vocal demands of the late 19th century French repertory. Whether or not the operatic plots to which this repertory is set can be made to seem relevant to 21st century audiences, is a matter that operatic managements leave to their production designers.
I suspect that the reason Judge was asked to create a production of “Romeo et Juliette” for the Los Angeles Opera was his famous association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. A central idea of this production is, like the Bard’s plays, that one scene will flow directly into another. John Gunter’s sets are four hollow multi-story structures that incorporate internal staircases and platforms. The four structures can be swiftly moved into different configurations to represent Juliet’s tomb (which appears in the prologue as well as the final scene), the Capulets’ ballroom, Juliet’s balcony and garden, Friar Laurence’s sanctuary and a city street, as needed.
[Below: Friar Laurence (Vitalij Kowaljow, standing) marries the fidgety adolescents Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo, kneeling left) and Juliet (Nino Machaidze, kneeling right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
However, Judge’s principal reputation in Los Angeles opera circles is not how he paces the Bard’s plays, but how he introduces sex into opera. As I suggested in my review of one of his productions (see Powerful, Edgy “Tannhauser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007), the imagery portrayed at the Los Angeles Opera’s home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was far more sexually-oriented than what would have been permissable for the creative departments of some of the Hollywood’s television and movie studios, a few of which are located just seven or so miles away. His “Tannhauser” could not be shown on American network TV nor get the PG-13 movie rating, important for box office receipts.
Since I first saw Judge’s “Romeo” production in 2005, I have spent considerable time thinking about Gounod’s operas, including writing articles for the magazine-like programs that were provided to the audience as they were seated for San Diego Opera performances of “Romeo” and “Faust”. In preparing those articles, I was especially interested in accounts of reactions of audiences to these two Gounod operas a century and a half prior in the Paris of the Second French Empire.
As I experienced the Judge production again in the 2011 revival, I found even more significant the costume schemes of British designer Tim Goodchild – the large hoop skirts of the women and black tie and tails or military dress of the men – that evoked the time of “Romeo’s” 1868 premiere. The Parisian opera goers (for whom Goodchild’s designs were contemporary) had just a few years previously been surprised and delighted by Gounod’s erotic “sweet melodies” that pushed the boundaries of what could be sung on stage. The Los Angeles opera goers, rather than experiencing an “old-fashioned” opera production, were treated to a visualization of the opera by a stage director who himself pushed the boundaries – at least for “Tannhauser” – of what might be seen on stage.
[Below: Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo, center front, left) is banished from Verona by its Duke (Philip Cokorinos, center back) after the mortal feud between Capulets and Montagues breaks out again; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Rather than the licentious sexuality of Judge’s “Tannhauser” Venusberg, it is the passion of first love that Judge presents. He emphasizes that the two lovers are adolescents, consumed by erotic passion, yet at the same time giggly (as teenagers of our own day can be) when in the presence of their mutual friend, Friar Laurence. Judge stages each of the love duets with all-consuming energy, but the most vivid images are those of the wedding night.
To Gounod’s music as rapturous as the “Faust” Garden Scene, Juliet and Romeo alternate identifying birdsongs as those of a nightingale (assuring that they have all the hours of the night to continue to make love) or of a lark (meaning that dawn is approaching and Romeo must be gone from Verona on pain of death). Grigolo and Machaidze blend their voices triumphantly, astonishing an audience, many of whom were there six years earlier to be astonished by Villazon and Netrebko in the same duet.
In my “Tannhauser” review, I had suggested that Judge may have staged the Venusberg differently, if he had a tenor lead who lacked stage inhibitions and had a sufficiently youthful physique to appear at least semi-nude. With Grigolo, he had the kind of tenor to which I referred, providing Judge the opportunity to push boundaries further than has been seen in French opera in California. In their wedding bed, discreetly draped with a top sheet, Grigolo’s Romeo is virtually nude when passionately embracing his bride. When Romeo concedes that it is the lark singing and not the nightingale, he pulls on a shirt and underdrawers and hops out of bed, then still partially undressed, scales down a wall to disappear.
Placido Domingo, the conductor, put heart and soul into a performance that reveled in both the drama and the beauty of Gounod’s melodies without ever seeming indulgent or saccharine. The superb interpretations of Machaidze and Grigolo as the adolescent lovers were juxtaposed with the solid “adult” performance as Friar Laurence, of the dependable Ukrainian basso cantante Vitalij Kowaljow, who has spent his Fall singing back to back performance runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
[Below: The dying Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo) tries to touch the hand of the dying Juliet (Nino Machaidze); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Several of the comprimario positions were taken by singers who have become familiar over the years to Los Angeles Opera audiences: Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov as Capulet, Philip Cokorinos as the Duke of Verona, Ronnita Nicole Miller as the Nurse. In her Los Angeles debut Renee Rapier made a strong impression as Stephano, the character whose provocative mocking of the Capulets led to all of the bad things that happen in this opera.
Domingo-Thornton artists, from the Los Angeles Opera’s young artists’ program, filled in several of the other roles, including Museop Kim as Mercutio and Russian tenor Alexey Sayapin as Tybalt.
I recommend the revival unreservedly to all opera goers, and believe it would be an appropriate first live performance of an opera.
For my review of a different production of the same opera, see: Costello, Perez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010.