Wednesday, February 09, 2005
As my friend Denny remarked at the end of this evening's Los Angeles Opera performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, I can't remember any other time when the audience so unanimously leaped to its feet in applause at the end. We were amazed that this rich, romantic opera -- chock-full of great arias, and with such a beautiful and beloved story -- is not performed more often. Of course, we were treated to two young and very talented stars who were perfect for their parts, and in top form this evening. Romeo was sung by the handsome Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. (It was our first time seeing him, but we hope not the last!) His rich honeyed tone swelled and swept with passion, effortlessly going the distance for one aria after another in this 5-act opera. And Juliet was the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whom we saw at her big-house debut as Lyudmila in San Francisco in 1995 (when she must have been 15 years old). Her nimble voice fills the room with flights of ornamentation, and then places pure pianissimo notes that linger softly in the air. Both were excellent actors as well, and the chemistry between them was marvelous. It certainly doesn't hurt that they both looked every bit their part (and thus didn't require the same willing suspension of disbelief as other performances we've seen, like a rather senior soprano dropping the seven veils in Salome, or a Wagnerian-size soprano waddling around the stage as the supposedly young and beautiful Norma). It was great to see a young Romeo actually climb over a gate and scale walls to reach his Juliet, or to see some young smooth skin in their bedroom scene. (Both of them were tastefully but teasingly topless.) Leave it to an opera to take a powerful drama and dramatize it even further, but opera is about squeezing every last emotional drop out of a scene, and we love the excess. While much of the libretto follows the Shakespeare fairly closely and even quotes famous parts, the opera version of the tomb scene has Romeo's poison be slow-acting, so that he and Juliet get a chance to sing goodbye (but how could we begrudge this lovely couple one last beautiful aria?). When the curtain first rose on the erector-set scaffolding that made up the set, I had initial doubts about whether this production would be a visual feast (especially since Los Angeles Opera, with all the artistic talent in this town to draw on, often has some wonderful sets). Fortunately, those doubts were misplaced, as the scaffolding had just enough beaux arts elements -- an arch here, a pediment there -- to sketch the buildings, which when combined with creative lighting and filled with a chorus-full of period costumes, painted a rich and beautiful picture. There were a few minor oddities -- such as sword fights without swords (an odd combination of fists, daggers, and a pistol were used) and Juliet being strangely absent from the balcony when Romeo sings "soft what light from yonder window breaks" -- but these trifles are readily overlooked in what was overall a magnificent feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. Both Netrebko and Villazon were practically giddy at their curtain call, and it was clear from their reaction and the audience's reaction that tonight they really nailed it.