Roméo et Juliette, LA Opera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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‘Roméo et Juliette’

Opera in five acts by Charles Gounod
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (based on Shakespeare’s tragedy)
Directed by Ian Judge
Conducted by Plácido Domingo
Starring Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze
LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Through Nov. 26, 2011

It is not necessary to be an opera aficionado to appreciate Ian Judge’s LA Opera production of “Roméo et Juliette” at the Music Center. Nor is it necessary to have an extensive musical background to recognize that for “Roméo et Juliette” the Chandler stage is full of wonderful voices, from leads Vittorio Grigolo (Roméo) and Nino Machaidze (Juliette), to the Los Angeles Opera Chorus busily spinning from ball scene to street scene.

First and foremost the night belongs to Roméo. Lyric tenor Vittorio Grigolo seizes the vocal opportunities with his expressive voice and exuberant style; he is thoroughly convincing as a youthful and impetuous heartthrob in any era. Dramatically, the role of Juliette is more challenging. Her first aria, “Je veux vivre” captures the flightiness of a young teenage girl. Coming from the ball where she is introduced to society, she learns that her father intends for her to marry Count Paris. She confides in her nurse (the underutilized Ronnita Nicole Miller) her resistance to her father’s plan, “I want to live in this dream which intoxicates me … this intoxication of youth.” Truth be told, her insight as a 13-year-old is a bit of a stretch, but blame Shakespeare for that one. Adolescence is generally not the joyous time it is cracked up to be with romantic, 20/20 hindsight. Nino Machaidze delivers the jewel song with her own youthful exuberance. In later arias, weighted down by lyrics making her seem increasingly wise beyond her years, plus the score, and the subsequent formless costuming, Machaidze’s Juliette becomes less believable. This is despite the fact that her full voice remains captivating and a good match for Grigolo’s passion and power in their four duets. Together they conquer the world, or at least the stage. It is too late to pull either Gounod or Shakespeare back for a revision.

This “Roméo et Juliette” is well cast. Judge’s production demands athleticism and youthful spirit; both are seen in abundance. Other outstanding performances are delivered by Vladimir Chernov, portraying a kinder, gentler Lord Capulet than usually seen; Vitalij Kowaljow as Friar Laurence; Museop Kim as Mercutio; and a special treat, replacement Renée Rapier in the trousers role of Stephano, Roméo’s servant. Plácido Domingo delivers a straightforward orchestral interpretation, though one can imagine the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under James Conlon rendering a more exciting execution of Gounod’s score.

The stage is defined by a creative three-story, skeletal framework that morphs from glittering ballroom to exterior, church, bedroom, and tomb. Though seemingly fragile — more like line drawing than structure — John Gunter’s postmodern set supports large numbers of the cast members at once ascending and descending, often with youthful vigor. With the exception of the noise made when elements of this large set are (surprisingly effortlessly) moved about the stage to accommodate the scene changes, this contemporary treatment is just the boost Gounod’s somewhat tired score needs.

Judge has also taken some liberties with time. Costumes are lush and colorful in effective contrast with the clean lines of the set; they are more 19th century than Elizabethan. Another update is Roméo’s polishing off of Tybalt with a pistol. Though it was invented in the 1500s, the pistol belongs more in Gounod’s era than Shakespeare’s. Do these freedoms taken with time really matter? I do not think so.

This production is not your grandmother’s “Roméo et Juliette.” You might not normally put it at the top of your to see list, but it is certainly worth the effort, if only to be able to say to your grandchildren, “I saw Vittorio Grigolo when he was in his prime and he knocked me off my feet.”

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