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Roméo et Juliette

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Seeing the Royal Opera’s production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is like being cast back to a bygone era.  There’s little directorial intervention in Nicolas Joël’s staging and an almost tasteless literalism about the sets, costumes and, it has to be said, some of the acting.  

None of this gets in the way of a glorious score and a thoroughly enjoyable evening for a work that could hardly be said to be over-exposed (this is only the production’s second revival since 1994).

Of the two slavic leading voices – Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze as Juliette and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Roméo – it’s the latter who comes off better in this repertoire.  He pushes the ardency at times but vocally Beczala’s on the best form he’s been since he first appeared at Covent Garden six years ago. His ringing and powerful tenor is absolutely world-class and a joy to hear.

Machaidze is less comfortable with this French lyricism.  She would probably not welcome comparison with Netrebko but, with the Russian having played the same role here (in Bellini’s version) just 18 months ago, it’s unavoidable.  She’s a buxom beauty with a similar presence.  It’s not the sweetest voice, and there’s a tendency towards a stridency which doesn’t suit the role, but she’s a pretty fair actress (apart from overdoing the little girl acting at the beginning) and has an impressive coloratura.  At only 27, there’s plenty of time for her to develop.

The Royal Opera chorus are on fine form, vocally if not always acting-wise (bouts of physical rhubarbing break out from time to time, perhaps inevitable in as prehistoric a staging as this) and there are excellent supporting performances.

As Tybalt, Alfie Boe proves again how useful he can be in the right secondary role and Stéphane Degout is a masculine, powerful Mercutio.  Darren Jeffrey’s youthful Capulet impresses, as does Vitalij Kowaljow's house debut as Frère Laurent.  In the trouser role of Roméo’s page Stéphano, another debutante, Ketevan Kemoklidze, is ferociously forthright.

Like a great musical theatre composer, Gounod pushes all the right buttons, which fire off in every direction all evening.  Conductor Daniel Oren injects unexpected excitement and tenderness, producing a performance of lush loveliness.

This is not an evening for dramatic insight but an eye-opener for anyone unconvinced of Gounod’s once-pre-eminent place in the operatic world.  It helps shake off the woeful memory of ENO’s recent hash-up of the composer’s other masterpiece, Faust.

- Simon Thomas  


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