The much awaited début of Guy Joostens’ production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has been talked about in the media as the Natalie Dessay’s Met début in a serious role (if I am not mistaken, her roles in the house have been so far Fiakermilli, Zerbinetta and Olympia). Maybe because of that, her last minute cancellation has thrown an awkward atmosphere in the whole production. It is not that Maureen O’Flynn has spoilt the show. She proved to have nerves of steel on stepping in in circumstances like that. Dexterous as she is, she still has a slightly acidulous voice and her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. However, her tone is penetrating enough for comfort and she looks gracious enough for the role. The problem is that the whole show has been concocted for Dessay’s acting abilities – and her absence left the remaining singers/actors uncomfortable – and that may account’s for the overall reticence in the rest of the cast. Finally granted its Juliette, the whole performance seemed transformed – most of all conductor Bertrand de Billy. While his account of the score on Monday seemed a bit contrived and miscalculated, he showed a mastery of his orchestra and a sense of vitality on Thursday to an extent that someone might take him for another maestro.
And there was Dessay. Although the voice has these days a tendency to spreading on top notes, this is not really bothersome in the theatre. On the contrary, it is a most charming, entirely musical instrument that gives life to every bit of melody in the part of Juliette. Her native French, her tone colouring col testo, her legendary flexibility and accuracy with roulades, runs and trills – there is no doubt that she deserves her reputation and her moving into lyric roles is most welcome. Most noticeable of all was the wealth of stage movements and character building that filled scenes which looked uneventful on Monday. Her Juliette is spirited and whole-hearted in fun and in woe. Accordingly, Ramón Vargas responded more ardently to this Juliette, although his legato seemed to be more thoroughly knit on Monday. His voice is also entirely suited to this role – his dulcet tenor has enough volume for the most exposed moments, although this must not be confounded with the heroic quality one might expect from him considering his recent choice of roles. He sang with grace, sensitivity and sense of style and proved to be comfortable with his acting in a way few tenors in this repertoire do. The other tenor, Dimitri Pittas, in the role of Tybalt, is firm-toned and rightfully incisive to depict the character’s sense of pride and self-importance. Stéphane Degout’s Mercutio is similarly forceful, but also idiomatic and – thank God – unexaggerated. Kristinn Sigmundsson has the right gravitas for the role of Frère Laurent and Joyce DiDonato is a vivacious Stéphano.
As for the production, it is lots of ideas – most of them innocuous but inoffensive. Having the action set on a display of a clock with astrological/astronomic associations seems to imply the idea of ill-starred lovers taken to an untimely death, but that’s too intellectual to guarantee an extra amount of feeling. It certainly looks beautiful, though. I am not a Gounod-ian, so I have seen this opera only once before, in Munich (with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez), in a wonderful modern production that actually added insight to the story, but my “default” is the MacKerras video in which everything simply looks like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’ve missed that.