Roméo et Juliette, Dublin

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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Roméo et Juliette

by Charles Gounod
Dublin: Gaiety Theatre, Feb 27 – March 7

Though one of Opera’s ‘also rans’ in some ways, French composer Charles Gounod did
have the distinction of carrying the label ‘composer of Faust’ for much of his
career. His charged 1859 hit with its undertones of political malaise arguably
created a distinct musical moment, somewhere between Grand Opera and Operetta, and
identifiably French, at least so far as many later French composers would say in
citing his clarity and directness with character as an influence. And yet his
successes were very few. Apart from Faust, there is really only Roméo et Juliette,
first performed in 1867, to compare in measure of both its historical and
contemporary success.

After a somewhat murky presentation of Faust in 2006, Opera Ireland presents a real
delight with Roméo et Juliette: a bright, crisp, hugely enjoyable production clearly
benefitting from clean direction by Annilese Miskimmon and two warm and likable
performances from its central couple, French Soprano Nathalie Manfrino as Juliette
and American tenor Michael Spyers as Roméo. Manfrino initially seems to be trying a
bit too hard, forcing Juliette’s desperation during “Je veux vivre” as she is
paraded by her father Count Capulet (Belgian Baritone Marcel Vanaud), but this gives
way to a more gentle tone of romantic longing and devotion as the action progresses.
Spyres, for his part, exemplifies the production. His voice is charmingly
traditional, gentle, and light, and though not without conviction, he sings in a
simple, communicative light tenor style not heard enough anymore.

This is something you’ll either love or hate, and Gounod’s work naturally lends
itself to this kind of reaction. This is really not high drama, nor is it Grand
Opera. This is something halfway to twentieth century musical theatre, composed, as
it was, originally for Opera Comique (with spoken dialogue, though this was
eventually scored prior to presentation). It takes some of the highpoints of
Shakespeare’s narrative and stages them to music. The plot is very loose indeed, and
Gounod even goes so far as to include a new character, Stéphano the pageboy (Irish
Mezzo-Sporano Imelda Drumm) in what amounts to a kind of re-tread of the character
Siébel from Faust (though a much smaller role). For some this sacrilege is
unforgivable, as is Gounod’s lack of high-mindedness in his handling of tragedy, but
for those for whom this is no issue, what they will see and hear is a simple love
story told clearly and cleanly, and far from without lyricism or beauty. French
Conductor Jerome Pillement seems to relish the surprisingly unsentimental but very
lovely musical lines drawn by Gounod through the story, designed really to do
nothing more dramatic than give sung voice to the famed star-crossed lovers whose
story he knows we already know.

The design of the production is equally precariously balanced in terms of
effectiveness depending on your predisposition to accept its choices. Leslie
Travers’ set is dominated by a gigantic piece of furniture that turns out to be a
portable set all on its own, rotated and opened out to create multiple spaces within
which we find Juliette’s bedroom or other parts of the Capulet mansion. This piece
of decor borders on obtrusive to the point of absurdity on one level, and yet its
evident utility suits the simplicity of the Opera itself – it’s a device that
enables the production to get on with things without a lot of clutter. The rear
stage is decorated with dirty, peeling wallpaper: suggesting a sense of decadent
decay that frames Juliette’s determination to escape her scripted path to political
marriage, and the party guests (the Chorus, under the direction of Noelle Geny) are
dressed in a kind of dirty Victorian party ensemble falling slightly short of
gothic. The effect of these things is again to throw the weight upon the light and
sparkly performances of the leads, and on the bright hope of their love, and this
works. Because Manfrino and Spyers are able to draw and hold our sympathy (though
maybe they don’t really bring forth the tears), the audience finds itself wishing
them the best, knowing it won’t happen.

There should be no sense of condescension in advising audiences that to attend this
production of Roméo et Juliette is to enjoy an evening of entertainment. It is a
pleasure, not a chore, to see something so markedly uncomplicated, and to see the
work of a director who does not feel the need to overly force what demands little
elaboration. When Gounod chose Romeo and Juliet as his subject, he knew what he was
trying to achieve in terms of popular reach, and composed an Opera designed for
pleasure. This production provides exactly that.

Harvey O’Brien

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