Opera Review: Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’

Stellar performances ignite Metropolitan production
January 14, 2017 Updated: January 16, 2017

NEW YORK—Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has inspired orchestral works, ballets, Broadway musicals, jazz pieces, and numerous films. Charles Gounod’s adaptation is his most performed work, after “Faust”; it is also the most popular operatic adaptation of the Bard’s play, for though Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” is worthy, it is based on Italian sources. Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” is now back at the Metropolitan Opera, starring the German soprano Diana Damrau and the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. 

The leads have been described as opera’s hottest couple—onstage, that is, which may last longer than the real thing. Their onstage chemistry became apparent when they appeared together at the Met in Massenet’s “Manon” in 2015.

Soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette was superb throughout. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette is superb throughout. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

This production, directed by Bartlett Sher, updates the setting from the Renaissance to 18th-century Verona, but the plot stays fairly close to Shakespeare’s play, and many of the Bard’s lines appear in the text.

The opera starts with the chorus singing about the long-running feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.

At a masked ball in the Capulet palace, Juliette’s cousin Tybalt raves to Count Pâris about her beauty. Juliette’s proud father presents his daughter to the guests.

Michael Yeargan’s palazzo set is imposing and Catherine Zuber’s costumes colorful.

Roméo (of the Montague family) surreptitiously arrives with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio. He tells them of a dream he had, which Mercutio ascribes to fairy queen Mab. Roméo spots Juliette and falls in love at first sight. The young woman tells her nurse she has no intention of getting married but changes her mind as soon as Roméo speaks to her.

Roméo puts on a mask and makes a hasty retreat when the combative Tybalt comes over.

Vittorio Grigolo rendition of
Vittorio Grigolo rendition of “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” in the balcony scene, was the high point of the performance. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan)

Act 2 is the balcony scene at the Capulet house, during which the young man expresses his love for Juliette. After a short interruption by the servants, the two decide to wed.

Act 3 takes place in Frère Laurent’s cell, where the young couple tell the priest that they want to marry. He agrees, thinking this may lead to peace between the families.

Outside, members of the Montagues and Capulets become embroiled in an argument. Roméo tries to make peace. However, when Tybalt kills Mercutio (who utters a curse on both their houses before expiring), Roméo fatally stabs the aggressor.

As punishment, Roméo is ordered to leave Verona permanently. He secretly marries Juliette but, after a night together, he departs from the city.

Director Bartlett Sher moved the Renaissance era opera to 18th-century Verona. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan)
Director Bartlett Sher moved the Renaissance era opera to 18th-century Verona. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan)

Juliette’s father tells her that she is to wed Paris later that day. Frère Laurent comes up with a plan to assist Juliette. He gives her a sleeping potion to create the illusion that she has died. This fools her family, and her body is placed in the family’s crypt.

When Roméo arrives and finds her lifeless body, he believes she has passed away. In despair, he takes poison. Juliette wakes to find her groom dying. She fatally stabs herself and the lovers sing a final duet, expressing their love and hope that God will forgive them for taking their own lives.

Grigolo fills the hall with his opulent sound.

Before the performance began, there was an announcement that the soprano was ill but was still going to perform. Despite her cold, Damrau was superb, as effective in the enchanting “Je veux vivre” (I want to live) when she first appears as in the tragic final scene.

Grigolo has the looks and enthusiasm of a romantic hero and fills the hall with his opulent sound. His aria in the balcony scene, “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” (Ah! Rise, sun), was the high point of the performance.

The pair’s stage chemistry was unimpaired by Damrau’s cold.

Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo in
Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The rest of the cast was also up to the Met’s high standards: bass-baritone Laurent Naouri was convincing as the head of the Capulet family, and bass Mikhail Petrenko was sympathetic as the well-meaning Frère Laurent. Baritone Elliot Madore was an effective Mercutio, mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez played a vocally strong Stéphano (Roméo’s page), mezzo-soprano Diana Montague was a fine Gertrude (Juliette’s nurse), and bass-baritone David Crawford was an asset as Pâris.

The Met orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, played Gounod’s melodic score with style.

Michael Yeargan’s palazzo set is imposing and Catherine Zuber’s costumes colorful, especially in the masked ball scene. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, though, was rather dark.

Starting on March 3, Pretty Yende and Stephen Costello will step into the lead roles.

“The Met: Live in HD” will be in movie theaters on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 12:55 p.m.

‘Roméo et Juliette’
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org 
Running Time: 3 hours
Closes: March 18

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.