Opera Review: ‘Roméo et Juliette’ at Metropolitan Opera

Stephen Costello as Roméo and Pretty Yende as Juliette in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Pretty Yende have a lot going for them in as the leads in The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Charles Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.”  They sang gorgeously, received glowing assistance from conductor Emmanuel Villaume and the Met Orchestra, behaved like adolescents without embarrassing themselves, and kissed nonstop.  For even with extreme close-ups provided by streaming at home or in the movies, many singers still pour their hearts out to the audience rather than each other.  Thanks to director Bartlett Sher, their passion was real.

. . .they sang gorgeously. . .

Rather than the “fair Verona” of Renaissance, the Tony-award winning director moved the Capulets and Montagues’ “ancient grudge” to the 18th-century.  Sher is not the first to do so: “West Side Story” was filmed where Lincoln Center now stands and the still-watchable 1936 movie starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer is more MGM costume parade and less authentic looking.  He is also ably assisted in making this work by two long-time collaborators, costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Michael Yeargan.

But as with his quietly devastating “Fiddler on the Roof,” what Sher does best is enhance the words and music with strong attention to detail.  It’s not subtle, but it works.  For example, the Capulets are better dressed, indicating that the trouble between the two clans was financial.  Roméo lays down his cloak for the two to kneel on when Frère Laurent (bass Matthew Rose) marries them.

During their goodbyes before Roméo’s exile, Juliette throws aside the same dagger she will eagerly grab in the last scene.  There was also an extra or dancer watching the fatal, plot-turning duels in the square attired like a courtesan.  She stood out enough to be a homage to the harlots (apologies, that is really the names of the roles) in both “Romeo and Juliet” ballets by Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko.

Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré streamline Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Though the opera opens as the play does with the Prologue sung by the Chorus (it is not uncommon in productions of the play for the cast to recite it together), the first scene is the ball.  Another departure is Lord Capulet (bass-baritone Philip Horst) being a single father.

The composer is far more interested in the bullying Tybalt (tenor Sean Panikkar) than carefree Mercutio (baritone Yunpeng Wang), whose “Queen Mab” aria is rather short.  An added character, Roméo’s page Stéphano (mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy in her Met debut). is a plot catalyst for trouble.  Therefore, the opera is “Roméo et Juliette,” which works when engaging singing actors like Costello and Yende. 

And yet, Gounod looks past Romanticism and Shakespeare.  The lovers desire death as the ultimate union.  This 1867 opera is in no way like Wagner’s 1865 “Tristan und Isolde,” but that idea of the ultimate coupling is delicately expressed in a prime example French Grand Opera.

Running Time: 3 hours, with one 35-minute intermission.