Review: Roméo et Juliette (West Horsley Place)

Grange Park Opera’s disappointing new staging of Gounod’s Shakespeare opera.

Olena Tokar as Juliette and David Junghoon Kim as Roméo in Roméo et Juliette (Grange Park Opera)
Olena Tokar as Juliette and David Junghoon Kim as Roméo in Roméo et Juliette (Grange Park Opera)
© Robert Workman

There's an old song about accentuating the positive, so here goes. Grange Park Opera's new production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette boasts a set and lighting that would fit right in at Glyndebourne. Shakespeare's star-cross'd tale sits well in Francis O'Connor's semi-abstract modern-dress environment: his designs ably track the tale from ballroom to bare tomb and all points between, with subtle shifts of perspective supplied by sliding panels and gliding trucks. Wonderful use, too, of illuminated perpendicular columns within David Plater's superbly variegated lighting scheme. It all looks grand.

There's charm aplenty in the music (the opera has its champions and one can see why), but R&J needs a director's help to avoid feeling like a night of vignettes in song. Gounod tracks Shakespeare's play in leisurely fashion across three long hours, nowhere more indulgently than in the never-ending story of the lovers' demise, but Patrick Mason has based his stage dispositions on out-front singing and group clusters, and he makes little attempt to create emotional connections between his characters.

Stephen Barlow conducts the score with Gallic energy but a misplaced Italianate weight, and he is not helped by some uncharacteristically frayed string playing by the English National Opera Orchestra. (Is this the company's 'A' team? It's not generally a band one associates with mediocrity.) Both the players and GPO's oddly unattributed chorus burst the seams of the new 'Theatre in the Woods' at West Horsley by stacking up the decibels in an opera that cries out for a light touch.

One or two of the solo singers are caught in the slipstream of this quest for volume, not least Gary Griffiths who brings little colour to Mercutio and disappointingly oversings his showpiece aria, "Mab, la reine des mensonges". Tenor Anthony Flaum fares much better as Tybalt, his swordfighting foe, but even the esteemed Clive Bayley as Capulet is given to barking his way through a part that Gounod and his librettists Barbier and Carré bolstered up to semi-principal status.

This failure to differentiate between Italianate and French musical styles goes right to the top, with David Junghoon Kim's Roméo inflected and weighted as though he was singing Puccini and Olena Tokar's astonishingly plausible Juliette – girlish and guileless to a T – forced into vocal ugliness by the need to overproject.

Then there's the French, or whatever it was they were singing. Scarcely a word was decipherable from any quarter, least of all from Mats Almgren as Frère Laurent. The Swedish bass is a distinctive singer whose chewy enunciation works well in German – he sang both Fafner and Hagen in Opera North's Ring cycle – but his lack of vocal ping is catastrophic in a language that's substantially produced by the teeth and lips.

There's no gainsaying the disappointment I felt at this Roméo et Juliette. Gounod's flawed score is a polished pebble that skims lightly over the surface of its dramatic material while rarely plumbing the depths. In this production it doesn't even get wet.