By Raymond Beegle
Photo credit: Ken Howard, the Metropolitan Opera
Things continue to change in the second year of the new regime at the Metropolitan Opera House. There is more life, there is a larger public, and enthusiasm has increased The new general director seems to know very well the ins and outs of the advertising world which packages and sells everything from detergents to politicians, and has used his skill to produce these results. If we include in the packaging category stage sets and design, it must be said the the standard is very high for Roméo et Juliette, as the visual aspect of this production is an elegant and evocative combination of surrealism and Renaissance forms that filled this viewer’s eyes with wonder and delight. The consumer, however, has come to find that sometimes packaging is of better quality than the product at issue, which is, in this case -first and last - singing.
The singing in this production was not on a consistently high level. By far the finest performance was delivered by Anna Netrebko, who has grown in technical skill and vocal opulence since this listener heard her approximately ten years ago when she was a light and agile coloratura in a Saint Petersburg production of Russlan and Lyudmlla. The voice has grown, and has perhaps overgrown the vocal dimensions of Juliette. Although the fioritura passages were generally clean, they were not sung with quite the ease one remembers in the earlier stages of her career. The present increase of vocal weight served well however in the extended dramatic finale to Act IV in which she summons the courage to drink the sleeping potion given her by Friar Laurence. It was a profound and breathtaking outpouring of sound and wonderful collaboration of heart and mind.
Roberto Alagna, the Roméo, did not display this caliber of artistry. Although he is as handsome as she is beautiful, (perhaps another indication of packaging), the consequences of relentless vocal tension are already undermining what had been a rather beautiful instrument. His middle range, which suffers especially, has become increasingly strident, and his tops, although they are at times thrilling, do not seem to have much to do with the rest of the voice. Both Alagna and Netrebko act quite convincingly, but it was embarrassing to witness the very poor taste they exhibited in their free floating marriage bed. Perhaps the stage director asked them to behave like “adult video” stars, but it certainly did not reflect the sumptuous music, and only drew titters from the audience.
Aside from Isabel Leonard, as Stéphano, and Marc Heller, as Tybalt, who delivered their cameo arias with elegance and gusto, the supporting presented was a sad tale of vocal troubles and poor acting. By contrast, a highlight of the evening was the brilliant singing of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, especially in the prologue, which was a paragon of solid intonation and superb style. Style, however, was a different matter from the orchestral standpoint, where echoes of verismo emanated from the baton of Placido Domingo. Compared to the performances of Andre Cluytens and Georges Pretre, the elegance and lyric grace of Gounod’s music were greatly diminished under Maestro Domingo’s leadership, although he generated a considerable amount of excitement. He has not yet found a means of drawing a homogeneous sound from the brilliant musicians of this orchestra. The strings, woodwinds, and brass, generally lacked a clear ensemble ring within their individual sections, and consequently there was no overall ensemble in the tutti passages. Even so, the orchestra’s innate beauty of tone and dramatic thrust are always more or less in evidence no matter who stands on the podium.
Despite many shortcomings, the power of the music itself, the brilliant performance of Netrebko, and the superb Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra created much magic and carried the evening which ended with cheers, some deserved, some not.
Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese. Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.