OVERNIGHT REVIEW: LA Opera’s “Romo et Juliette” at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

______________________

 

LA Opera: Gounod’s Romo et Juliette

Saturday, November 12, 2011 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Next performances: November 17 at 7:30 p.m. November 19 and
20 at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laopera.com

 

56623-Romeo image.jpg

Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo play the lead roles in
LA Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romo
et Juliette,
now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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I’m not sure exactly when it hit me — probably somewhere
near the end of the balcony scene of Gounod’s Romo et Juiette last night — but it sort of crept up on me that
it’s been several years since LA Opera mounted a really bad production. If
you liked the company’s presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (which I emphatically did), then the
weakest evening in quite some time was last season’s presentation of Lohengrin and even if you didn’t think
much of the production concept (which I didn’t), that performance had much to
recommend it.

 

Last season began with the scintillating production of
Daniel Catn’s Il Postino and also
included The Marriage of Figaro,
Rigoletto, Il Turco in Italia
and The
Turn of the Screw —
all top-notch presentation. This season opened with Eugene
Onegin
and Cosi Fan Tutte, the former
(as I wrote) often riveting, the latter one of the best things that LAO has
ever done. That’s quite an impressive run and Romo et Juliette, a revival of LA Opera’s 2005 production, certainly
adds to that list.

 

At least some of the reason for the success has been the
company’s ability to cast imaginatively with singers who have either been
relatively unknown (e.g., Charles Castronovo in Il Postino) or taking on a role for the first time (e.g., Patricia
Racette in The Turn of the Screw). Tonight
was yet another chapter in that ongoing story.

 

Gounod’s retelling of the famous Shakespeare tale isn’t a
great opera (although it isn’t as bad as some critics think). Considering that
(as Michael Hackett noted in his preconcert lecture) Gounod and his librettists,
Jules Barbier and Michael Carre, were translating Shakespeare’s 16th
century English play about a story set in 15th century Verona into a
in 19th century opera in France that we’re viewing in the 21st
century, it’s a wonder that it works as well as it does.

 

However, there’s no real reason to mount this opera unless
you have two special singer-actors in the starring roles. In 2005, LAO led with
Rolando Villazn and Anna Netrebko who were just emerging as the hottest couple
in the operatic firmament.

 

In his program-book letter, LAO General Director Plcido
Domingo wrote, “Although I have been eager to revive Romo, I was willing to wait until I could find the perfect duo for
the title roles.” The wait was worth it, and if you haven’t seen Vittorio
Grigolo and Nino Machaidze as the star-crossed lovers, you should certainly get
yourself to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for one of the last three
performances because they are special. Although it’s always risky to make these
sort of predictions, you may one day look back and say, “I was there.”

 

In view of the fact that the lead characters are supposed to
be adolescents who can pour out miles of mature adult singing, Gounod was
seeking the impossible, roughly equivalent to Wagner’s troubles in casting the
title role of Siegfried (the two
operas were written at about the same time; Romo
et Juliette
premiered in 1867, nine years before Siegfried).

 

However, the 34-year-old Grigolo and the 28-year-old
Machaidze are about as close to the ideal as we’re going to get and that’s a
good thing on several fronts. For one thing, John Gunther’s imaginative sets –
sort of a cross between an erector set and Disneyland’s New Orleans Square –
require Grigolo to scamper up and down metal ladders, often while singing his
heart out. For another, the two genuinely seem inflamed with each other, always
a good thing when portraying these most famous lovers — in fact, they couldn’t
seem to keep their hands off each other once they first met (well, don’t you
remember what it was like to be a teenager with hormones raging?).

 

More importantly, Grigolo and Machaidze sing gorgeously –
boy, do they ever. Gounod gives them five love duets and plenty of other opportunities
and they take full advantage. Grigolo — who is making his LAO debut with this
role — exudes power with virtually every note; in fact, one wished for an
occasional lighter touch just as a change of pace but that’s a very minor kvetch. Machaidze, who we’ve seen twice
before with LAO, was more nuanced in her singing. However, she could match
Grigolo note for note in volume and was even more smoldering than he was.

 

The other parts are far less fulfilling — blame Gounod. The
most impressive last night were Vitalij Kowalijow (Wotan in LAO’s Ring) as a noble Friar Laurence and Rene
Rapier, a University of Iowa grad who had a saucy, scene-stealing turn as
Stephano. Rapier is part of the company’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artists
Program, one of six current or former DTYAP members in the cast.

 

Ian Judge, who directed the original production in 2005,
came back for the revival. Gunther’s set slid, turned and revolved enough to
allow Gounod’s five acts to be played as just two (the evening clocked in at
about 3:15). The fight choreography by Ed Douglas and the lighting design by
Nigel Levings were particularly effective.

 

Domingo accompanied his singers sensitively, although his
overall concept could have done with a bit more Gallic flare and nuance. James
Conlon he isn’t but this was a solid performance and, frankly, nobody comes to
this opera solely to hear the orchestra, which continues to be one of the
company’s strong points. The LAO chorus sang strongly thoroughly the evening.

 

Ultimately, as noted earlier, this was another in a string
of strong LAO productions over the past three seasons. As the company moves
into its second quarter-century, that’s healthy sign and one that bodes well
for the future.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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