Romeo and Juliette. Gounod. Sat 27th March 2011 at the Met.
An announcement craved our understanding for Mr Beczala who had a cold. As Romeo, one of the most difficult roles in opera, Mr Beczala was magnificent and the performance went ahead without a hitch. He looked the part and acted brilliantly in this very avant-garde ‘zodiac’ production. In a prologue and 5 acts he has to sing numerous arias and four love duets including much high tessitura and many exposed high notes. Beczala used style, control and beauty to accomplish his success.
No less impressive was his Juliette Hei-Kyung Hong who returns to the Met undiminished. She is able to do all the callisthenics required of the director … including a limp fall, sex scene on a small bed suspended high above the stage and more. Her initial ‘Waltz song’ was a tour-de-force indeed … but rather than simple joyous soliloquy she sang it to a mute but attentive Romeo, the as yet unknown object of her projected hapless happiness. The ‘party piece’ ended with a mutual limp fall, one of the few production details of questionable taste to my view, approaching slapstick.
Other parts were played by James Morris (cleric), Dwayne Croft (Capulet), Wendy White (Gertrude), Lucas Meachem (Mercutio), each more than competent Met artists. Placido Domingo conducted the Met orchestra to great and well deserved acclaim.
Each side of the stage was an Italian street scenes of arches, facades, architraves, etc in wood in-lay colours to match the flooring which was made of checkerboard squares of light and dark polished timber. The floor was marked out in both pictorial and nominal signs of the Zodiac in French. It also had a unique ‘revolve’ which was raked so as to initially be flat with the stage. On turning 180 degrees the large central circle became a metre above the stage at the front and a metre below it at the rear. This was used to great effect throughout the opera, but never to excess as so often happens when directors are given such stage devices.
Romeo and Juliette is replete with astronomical references - “Star-crossed lovers” is just the best known while a search turned up over a dozen including one reference to the phases of the moon. These astronomical/astrological aspects of the production made for an exceptional mise-en-scene for amateur star-gazers like me. Each tableau had three giant full circles, one at the rear, one of the floor and another, I presume, although I could only see the solar system “mobile”, high above the stage. The rear stage circular aperture had circumferential gradations plus a golden ball on a tangent, presumably representing a planet.
With much of the opera’s action taking place at night, the rear circle reflected the sky in all its guises starting with the milky way, followed by a spiral galaxy. Rather than the usual random star patterns one sees in Tosca and other operas, this production’s backdrop becomes a telescopic window onto the heavens. There was even gradual movement of the sky as anyone who has struggled with a toy telescope would know. Next we were presented with two cloudy intruders on the black which may have represented the Magellanic clouds (first seen by Magellan being near the Southern Cross and thus never visible from the northern hemisphere - but we put that down to artistic licence). These were followed by magnificent images of deep sky objects, planetary nebulae and other Messier objects, images of which may have even been from the Hubble telescope. In the next scene we saw an enormous full moon enlargement, replete with the Copernicus impact crater, its radiating lines, as well as a near-complete circular ‘sea’, possibly Mare Crisium.
At the start of Act III the stage had an electrified scrim in front of the action. This revealed the entire panoply of stars around the constellation Orion, the triplet stars of hunter’s belt (called ‘the saucepan’ in the southern hemisphere) with the night sky’s brightest star, Sirius in Canis Major, the dog constellation. Also clearly depicted were Gemini’s twin stars [sic], Hyades in Taurus (pink Aldebaran depicted correctly) and even (with the eye of faith) Pleiades (the “seven sisters”) beyond it. During the dual (NOT duel!) killings the rear projection became a black-centred eclipse which seemed appropriate. By the very last scene the rear circle contained an Escher-esque series of ‘stairways to nowhere’, paralleling a REAL giant paired stairway down which Romeo made his agonal entrance.
By chance and through unusually clear Manhattan skies I had noted Orion high above the Met as I crossed 65th Street (upside down from my usual point of view).
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