Strange Love

Illustration by David Ahuja/AthleticsPhoto: Courtesy of Juilliard; Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, there are more than 380 vocal theater works based on Shakespeare’s plays, but only a handful have any musical or dramatic worth. That seems rather severe, especially since Grove’s short list of worthy examples omits Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, now playing at the Metropolitan in a new production. Have we lost Roméo forever? Superior critics tend to get snippy when writing about this most fragrantly delicate of French romantic operas, and the refined vocal style the roles require, and which singers once cultivated as a matter of course, is no longer a priority. There are still very sound musical reasons why the work was so hugely popular in its day, particularly in New York during the 1890s when Roméo epitomized Met glamour at its most opulent and the company could engage casts that were truly spectacular.

The latest Met production hardly provides even a faint echo of all that. Come to think of it, the production it replaces didn’t either, although when that drab low-cost vision of old Verona was new back in 1967, it had Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli as an attractive and vocally charismatic, if stylistically impossible, pair of young lovers. Johannes Leiacker’s scenic design for the new Roméo is positively bizarre. The action seems to take place inside a planetarium, with a whirling central disc, medieval architectural designs on the side, and a gigantic panorama at the rear. All this may seem vaguely appropriate when Roméo woos Juliette at her balcony on a starry night, but far less so for the Capulet ball or the humble cell of Friar Laurence, who for some reason is an amateur astronomer with a drinking problem. From time to time an enigmatic planetary mobile descends from the ceiling and begins to turn. It all looks faintly ridiculous, taking the idea of star-crossed lovers to a weird new level.

Guy Joosten’s direction is nothing if not inventive. It may have seemed cute and clever to stage Juliette’s carefree Waltz Song and first meeting with Roméo in Act I as a mock enactment of the real tragedy to come, but it was a mistake to suspend a narrow nuptial bed swaying dangerously some twenty feet above the stage, forcing the lovers to negotiate a very careful night of passion. That hardly helped free up the rather stiff Roméo and Juliette of Ramón Vargas and Maureen O’Flynn, the latter with the ungrateful task of covering for an indisposed Natalie Dessay. Both singers were clearly ill at ease on opening night, going about their tasks with a remote conscientiousness that could hardly have won new fans for Gounod’s pretty opera. Stéphane Degout’s athletic Mercutio perked up the few scenes he was in, and Joyce DiDonato made an enchanting moment out of her specialty number as the page, Stéphano. Given the overall lackluster tone of the production, I don’t wonder that conductor Bertrand de Billy wanted to get through the evening as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A more recent Shakespeare opera, universally admired (even by Grove), came to the Juilliard School’s Opera Center not long ago: Benjamin Britten’s 1960 setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a text that uses an ingenious digest of the Bard’s own words. Part of the work’s strength comes from the unusually vivid and hard-edged musical depiction of the play’s three levels of action: the fairy world of Oberon and Titania, the squabbling quartet of lovers, and the earthy band of rustic tradesmen. Britten defines each milieu with extraordinary precision and imagination, blending all the elements in that charmed way only opera can accomplish. Chris Barreca’s set of hanging Mylar strips and tubing was sufficiently otherworldly if not especially magical, but the excellent cast, made up largely of Juilliard students directed by Eve Shapiro, did the work proud under the guidance of David Atherton, one of today’s most eloquent Britten conductors.

Roméo et Juliette
Charles Gounod.
Metropolitan Opera.
Through March 9.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Benjamin Britten.
Juilliard Opera Center.
November 16.

Strange Love