The star-cross’d (and loud) lovers

A short write-up of a long evening.  A rather dull production of a rather dull opera: Gounod’s slapdash pastiche of Roméo et Juliette was revived, without appearing to be resuscitated, at Covent Garden.

A gloomy, vaguely Renaissance-postmodernist set (think the sort of detailing you might get at a new shopping centre called, say, ‘The Palazzo’) contained principals and chorus in vaguely Renaissance costumes. People moved about efficiently, the chorus squashed into the space in considerable numbers, and nothing intruded on the story.

Some intrusion would have been welcome.  Gounod’s version is as though someone took a detailed 16th century etching and recreated it in gaudy, broad-brushstroke oils.  I recall The Nurse being a rather darker character than the homely stock-operatic character presented here, who has little to do with engineering the tragedy that unfolds.  The death scene is less engaging, as Romeo arrives aware of her death, rather than discovering it, and hence a significant motivation for his suicidal impulse is dissipated.  Everyone is cardboard in a plot that is reduced in complexity to fit the time and, because of the demand for dance interludes in the standard 19th-century French opera format, it still comes in at over 3hrs without intervals.  That page boy’s song in Act IV can go as well.  Can we make that an authorised cut?  No?  Shame.

Or maybe it was all about the acting? This was big-gesture opera.  The subtlest portrayals were Mercutio and Tybalt.  Father Capulet was like Wotan in his more prosaic mode (and was apparently dressed in an Axminster from beginning to end).  Our two leads were loud of voice and limited of acting.  Piotr Beczala (as Roméo) managed more subtlety than his paramour, but I agree with those who have commented (such as on the Intermezzo post) that, between them, it felt like being shouted at for four hours.  His voice is attractive of tone, no doubt, but when it reaches its upper ranges it appears to change quality, a slightly more wooden hue takes over from the burnished metal elsewhere.

Nino Machaidze, last seen in these parts in Così fan tutte, was a 14 year old girl with the voice of, well, perhaps not quite an Isolde, but it gave that sort of impression.  As we approached Je veux vivre I was a little apprehensive, but it was negotiated skilfully, at the same time lacking any charm and sparkle whatsoever.  The sound was big, coarse and whilst it meant no leaning forward to hear, it added to the one-dimensional portrait.  On the positive, what it lacked in agility and subtlety, it more than made up for in security and orchestra-scything edge.  Both protagonists mangled the French language: I’m not normally great at discerning these subtleties, but when the hero laments that “thought [she] was dead, so drank some fish”, you know something is wrong.  I had to recheck the lyrics of Je veux vivre, because I came away thinking it was something to do with wanting “to live, to dance”, rather than “to live in this dream”, and all because Machaidze’s hard ‘a’ made it sound distinctly like “je veux vivre, danser…”, rather than “je veux vivre dans ce…”

So, was it a chore?  Well, there is enough melody and chromatic lushness in Gounod’s style to make some chunks fly by, especially the dramatic ones, even if other scenes (mostly the love scenes, actually) tend to collapse in on themselves in a sort of soupy mush.  The fight scene was, to everyone’s credit, one of the most convincing I’ve seen on the stage of Covent Garden, especially where principals are involved.  What on earth the character of the Duke of Verona was needed for, I have no idea: he appeared so that everyone could be jolly well told off for their fighting, but it appeared to make no difference to the following proceedings at all.

The orchestra played well for Daniel Oren, who clearly likes the big, fruity Gounod sound and drove a dramatic reading.  The chorus belted out their big numbers with balcony-rattling force, putting them in my good books, after having got the opera off to a particularly dreary start (not their fault) with a sort of ‘prologue’.  This was presumably the “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” bit, but it sounded less enticing a dramatic prospect in Gounod’s hands.

Not a total disaster, I suppose, but not a very uplifting evening in the theatre.  Luckily that meant a few empty seats appearing around us, so we could spread out.  This was fortunate, since the woman next to me was naturally ‘spread out’ anyway, leaving me two-thirds of an Amphi seat…

Anyway, if you want to give me Gounod in future, then next time I’ll take Faust…

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