Bernheim and Sierra are outstanding as Gounod’s star-crossed lovers in the Met’s Roméo et Juliette

United StatesUnited States Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD (directed by Gary Halvorson) from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 23.3.2024. (JPr)

Alfred Walker (Frère Laurent), Nadine Sierra (Juliette) and  Eve Gigliotti (Gertrude) © Marty Sohl/Met Opera

This was only my second Gounod Roméo et Juliette with a gap of 13½ years between the two. In 2010 I learnt how the French composer was particularly famed for his oratorios, had spent some time in England – indeed he was the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society – and was deemed, by his peers, as being too Wagnerian. It is probably no coincidence then that his 1867 Roméo et Juliette begins with the same chord as Wagner’s 1843 Der fliegende Holländer!

Gounod’s librettists (Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) are mostly faithful to the ultimate tragedy of this doomed pair apart from the liberties taken with Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech; then there is the introduction of Stéphano, Romeo’s page, who is given a fey Act II aria and is the catalyst of the ensuing cataclysmic brawl; and finally, Juliette wakes-up before Roméo’s poison takes effect. (Once again, we do not see how a message from Frère Laurent fails to reach Roméo and so he doesn’t find out Juliette is only drugged. Apart from the original play it is only Rudolf Nureyev’s fate-driven ballet production which does show this in my experience.)

We heard in Bartlett Sher’s backstage interview (with the urbane Live in HD host Ryan Speedo Green) how his distinctly old-fashioned production was inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1976 film about the life of Casanova. So, we are now not in the fourteenth century but the eighteenth and the facades, colonnades and galleries of Michael Yeargan single set suggested to me Venice and not Verona: Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes and all the facemasks for the Capulets’ ball are redolent of Verona’s famed carnival. Roméo wanders about looking like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Juliette is mostly in an elegant nightgown with an extravagant train. Sher’s production was first seen in Salzburg in 2008 and then at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 2011 before first being seen at the Met at the very end of 2016.

Everything seems to be taking place in a city square – with some street access into it – and on a sizeable central low plinth. Costumed stagehands (?) bring on some stage furniture, such as for the scene at Frère Laurent’s ‘cell’ and the wedding of Roméo and Juliette. Sher does not really interfere with the opera, he has no real need to, we (all?) know how Juliette’s family, the Capulets, hate Roméo’s, the Montagues, and of course that Roméo and Juliette are attracted to each other from the get-go and fall in love. Some odd choreography for the guests at the Act I ball notwithstanding; the chorus is mainly static and singing as if it was taking part in a tableau vivant. Nevertheless, their mourning for the death of Tybalt, Juliette’s nephew, was very moving.

During the interval after the wedding (Act III, Scene 1) we got to see the incredible number of backstage crew at the Met mostly standing around. This was perhaps forgivable because it was Franco Zeffirelli’s monumental Turandot to be put onstage after this matinee performance, but it does seem to need three people to handle one broom. Several were engaged in manipulating an oversized white sheet and getting it hoisted into the air. Initially it is a canopy which will float down during the remainder of Act III and which then acts as a bed sheet, wedding dress and finally a shroud. There is not much fight director B. H. Barry can do with the brawl involving Stéphano (who wields a baguette at one point) and Roméo which sees his friend Mercutio, as well as Tybalt killed. Gounod seems to rush through this scene to hasten us on to the tragic denouement. Oddly, Sher has Juliette take the ‘sleeping’ potion and – though supposedly ‘dead’ – she appears to resurrect and is guided to the family tomb between Acts IV and V.

Nadine Sierra (Juliette) and  Benjamin Bernheim (Roméo) © Marty Sohl/Met Opera

What made this Roméo et Juliette revival such a success was the palpable onstage chemistry between Benjamin Bernheim and Nadine Sierra as Gounod’s star-crossed lovers, and they created characters those watching could relate to and believe in. They sang with feeling and emotion and reacted to each other convincingly during their four duets; the first being a tender parting at the end of the balcony scene and the final heartrending one at the opera’s tragic culmination. Bernheim and Sierra are not the teenagers cast by Zeffirelli in his 1968 Romeo and Juliet film, but they are still only in their thirties so are dramatically credible as a couple finding true love for the first time.

With self-confessed romantic Nadine Sierra’s spontaneous reactions to being forced by her father – and later Tybalt’s dying wish – to marry Pâris she presents Juliette as a flirty twenty-first century woman rather than a virginal eighteenth-century one. Sierra has the consummate  technique and all the notes her role demands and her highlights – duets apart – were of course her vivacious coloratura showpiece, ‘Je veux vivre’, the ‘waltz aria’, and – as the opera goes on – when her girlish glee turns to fear and ultimately to the tragedy of her deeply-affecting final act ‘poison aria’ ‘(Amour, ranime mon courage).

Benjamin Bernheim explained how his ‘role models’ as Roméo are Neil Shicoff, Plácido Domingo and especially his compatriot Roberto Alagna (who Bernheim reminds me of most). There is musicality, elegance, charm, grace and nobility of style which seems uniquely French. Bernheim is undoubtedly a throwback to those who have influenced him, as well as other bel canto tenors of an earlier generation such as Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda. Bernheim’s Act II romance ‘Ah! lève-toi, soliel!’ was phrased supremely well and full of passionate longing which built to a climax which – very fleetingly – suggested some tiredness in his voice. Regardless of that occurring again later in the opera Bernheim was a suitably ardent and – more importantly – memorable Roméo. As to be expected he was the only singer totally at ease with the French language of the libretto.

The rest of the cast were variable – to say the least – catching the eye were Eve Gigliotti as Juliette’s loyal, caring and conspiratorial nurse; Samantha Hankey’s feisty Stéphano who only gets to sing after the interval at the Met; Alfred Walker’s compassionate Frère Laurent; and Will Liverman’s devoted Mercutio (his ballad to Queen Mab was suavely sung). There were weaknesses elsewhere and I wish Frederick Ballentine’s Tybalt, Daniel Rich’s Pâris and Daniel Rich’s Capulet (Juliette’s father) had made a better impression on me.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin believes Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is a better opera than his Faust and he clearly embraces the ecstatic grandeur of its sweeping, luminous melodies. Not only that but he also drew out from his Met Orchestra – which was on typically fine form – some delicate daubs of colour worthy of a French Impressionist painter. The Met Chorus was on their usual top form and this I now take for granted.

Jim Pritchard

Production – Bartlett Sher
Revival Stage director – Gina Lapinski
Set designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer – Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer – Chase Brock
Fight director – B. H. Barry
Chorus master – Donald Palumbo

Cast (in order of singing):
Tybalt – Frederick Ballentine
Pâris – Daniel Rich
Capulet – Nathan Berg
Juliette – Nadine Sierra
Mercutio – Will Liverman
Roméo – Benjamin Bernheim
Gertrude – Eve Gigliotti
Grégorio – Jeongcheol Cha
Frère Laurent – Alfred Walker
Stéphano – Samantha Hankey
Benvolio – Thomas Capobianco
Duke of Verona – Richard Bernstein

Live in HD Host – Ryan Speedo Green


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