My beloved Juan Diego Florez begins his exploration of the French repertoire, which, starting from this Romeo and Juliet by Gounod, will bring him to Werther, and Les Huguenots. And your faithful correspondent will tell you everything about it (if she finds the tickets).
Here it is, I’ll say it right away: I will miss Florez in Rossini like hell, but the French nineteenth century suits him perfectly. His lyricism, his elegance, and his sophistication, in my opinion, exalts this character of Romeo, and give him depth. Romeo needs a “young” voice, of course, a lyric tenor whose voice may seem a boy’s voice – I adore Franco Corelli, but in this opera he sounds like Romeo older brother, suffering from a gout attack. Florez manages to give the impression of a fresh and young voice, but confident and robust at the same time. The result is a young, impetuous, immature Romeo, but deeply in love and sure of his feelings. He fulfills his fate with no hesitation. In short, a romantic hero.
Is anything missing? I’m sure somebody will say: some volume. I have only one word of abuse for you: SIZE QUEENS! Size is not everything. Of course I also would love a bit more volume in the middle register, what the heck. But this doesn’t mean that Florez isn’t an excellent performer in this repertoire. But let me give you some details.
The production was the usual madness in modern clothes, with a practically empty stage; somebody should really teach a course to opera directors, explaining to them that putting something behind the shoulders of the singers helps their projection, and improves the overall experience from the audience. But of course, opera directors do not meddle with trifles such as voice projection and music. Throw lyrical singers in a gigantic empty stage and let them fight for themselves! The only thing on the stage was some sort of semi-circular platform, which went up and down to represent the balcony, or Juliet’s bed, or her catafalque (here is a little movie of Florez and Rebeka being silly on this platform during a rehearsal).
The other thing on stage was a set of gigantic lights aimed at the audience.
Basically, for about half of the performance it was impossible to see anything that was happening on stage, blinded by super-troupers worthy of a night soccer game in some arena. A positive thing of the production was Florez’ costume in the first act. He really can pull off a red jacket.
The orchestra, marvelous as usual. In Vienna there is the largest pit in Europe (I believe), and one of the largest and best orchestras. The best word to describe their sound is “sumptuous”. With romantic music they really give everything they’ve got; I can’t imagine how wonderful they must sound in Wagner!. The conductor was Marco Armiliato, and I liked him a lot. With great presence, he helped the singers and gave a true romantic interpretation. Such an orchestra of course has a tendency to cover the singers, especially when they are left alone on a naked stage.
I have already told you about Florez’ voice, in general. Some details: in the first act, after meeting Juliet, he cracks a wonderful super-high (not written) note, a way to convey how much he was smitten. In his grand aria in the second act (Ah! lève-toi, soleil!) he received an ovation of how don’t know how many minutes, we just wouldn’t stop. He really sang his heart out in that aria. A high note at the end of the second act, pianissimo, perfect, on the breath, a wonderful gem. The scene in Juliet’s bed was very emotional, and the finale was heart-breaking, he was singing lying on the floor; when he got up to thank the audience he was visibly teared up.
I think his acting was pretty good too: he manages to convey Romeo’s teenage swagger very well, even if his gestures always feel Latin to me. This may also be due to his costume, which reminded me of bull fighters. But it wasn’t a bad thing in this case.
Juliet was Marina Rebeka, who I had never heard before, and I really liked her. A lyric soprano with great coloratura, and, unlike many lyric sopranos, a good, full, round voice, with a beautiful vibrato and a dark and robust foundation. The voice, with an Italianate sound, is young and fits the character very well. She managed very well the waltz of the first act, and, in the aria of the fourth act, where she drinks the sleeping potion, she was really communicative. The three great scenes with Florez (the balcony, the bed, the grave) were extremely moving, even if she has a stronger voice than Florez, and, at times, covered him a bit.
Among all the others I noticed Gertrude, sung by Carole Wilson, who characterized very well Juliet’s nurse, and looked like she was having a ball. Then we had a Mercutio by Gabriel Bermúdez, who was reasonable, and a Friar Laurence by Alexandru Moisiuc, the usual bass who takes all the high notes from below and screams (but audiences tend to love basses who scream). All the other ones were acceptable, no peaks, no infamy.
I didn’t know this opera very much, and I have to say that the music is very beautiful. Somehow, I find it weird to associate romantic music with Shakespeare: from a musical point of view, Shakespeare is associated to Elizabethan madrigals, in my mind. But, of course, these are Romeo and Juliet, and romantic music fits like a glove. The text follows Shakespeare very closely, even if, in order to adhere to romantic canons, there is one crucial change to the plot. In the opera, Juliet wakes up when Romeo is still alive, so the young lovers die together, while in Shakespeare they die each on their own, committing suicide in desperation for the death of the other. It is a much more tragic ending, much less consoling, more modern, after all. On the other hand, which composer could resist writing the music for a death-duet? Bellini also, in his transposition of Romeo and Juliet (I Capuleti e i Montecchi) writes a duet in that moment.
So, great opera, an many more French romantic operas to come from Juan Diego!