Estonia Gounod, Roméo et Juliette: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Estonian National Opera / Arvo Volmer (conductor), Estonian National Opera, Tallinn, 20.9.2019. (GF)
Stage director – Stephen Barlow
Set and costume designer – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting designer – Matt Haskins
Juliette – Perrine Madoeuf
Roméo – Nico Darmanin
Tybalt – Mart Madiste
Mercutio – Tamar Nugis
Capulet – Rauno Elp
Stéphanie – Helen Lokuta
Gertrude – Juuli Lill-Kösteer
Gregorio – Mart Laur
Pâris – Janari Jorro
Father Laurence – Priit Volmer
Judge LeDuke – Roman Chervinko
Benvolio – Urmas Pōldma
Stage director Stephen Barlow points out in his programme notes that the feud between two households in Verona more than 400 years ago ‘calls to mind the increasing polarization of politics and society in present day Europe and beyond, fuelled by mounting mistrust in in our political and economic institutions’ and this triggered him and his set designer Yannis Thavoris to transport the action, almost to the present day, and set it in Paris. Roméo et Juliette is, after all, an unmistakably French opera. And here the Capulet palace bears a strong resemblance to the Elysée Palace, which also has a beautiful balcony! The sets are truly beautiful: the extravagant luxury of the dinner party in the opening scene, the atmospheric outdoor scene below Juliette’s balcony, and the contrasting confrontation scene complete with riot barriers; or the sparse interior of Father Laurence’s chapel. The frequent changes of scenes are smoothly handled with the revolving stage. The visual aspects are indeed superbly controlled.
The musical side is also well catered to. It is a pleasure to see Arvo Volmer back as artistic director and chief conductor after several years’ absence, and he draws glowing playing and singing from his forces. The French repertoire ideally needs French voices, especially for the leading couple, and here the Estonian National Opera are lucky to have two young singers with excellent French. Roméo, Nico Darmanin, may not be French (he is Maltese), but he has the ideal voice for the role: light, lyrical but with enough heft and brilliance for the more dramatic scenes. His Juliette, Perrine Madoeuf, is a true French nightingale, glittering and technically brilliant. She wasn’t warmed up well enough for her waltz aria – her vibrato was a bit wide – but her coloratura was excellent and for the rest of the opera she never made a wrong move. Nico Darmanin was superb in the well-known ‘Ah! Lève-toi, soleil’, sung with a true glow, and elsewhere he was just as impressive. Both singers are also young-looking, have slender bodies which makes the more intimate scenes, where they are lightly dressed, pleasant to look at. Rarely have I seen two young singers so well suited to their roles.
The rest of the cast is home-grown and most of the roles are more or less marginal. The reliable Rauno Elp gives a well-chiselled portrait of Capulet, though vocally rather worn. Priit Volmer’s Father Laurence is warm and understanding and Helen Lokuta excels in Stéphanie’s mocking song at the riot barriers, partly sung with a plastic cone as megaphone.
I was totally engrossed in the performance and the only irritant was some insensitive onlookers in my close vicinity who felt an irresistible need to comment on the proceedings at short intervals. Hopefully they won’t be there next time and I urge readers with imminent plans to visit Tallinn to check the calendar of the National Opera when the next Romeo and Juliet is scheduled. But you should be aware of the fact that they also play Prokofiev’s ballet with the same title, sometimes back to back on two consecutive evenings.
In any case, with these two young singers in the title roles, this Roméo et Juliette is a resounding success.