Roméo et Juliette (Gounod) - Royal Opera House, 27 October 2010
Gentlemen of the chorus - if you're forced to don clinging tights, at least demand an Acosta-sized dance belt to sweeten the deal.
Nicolas Joël's 1994 production of Roméo et Juliette is medieval Verona as a French and Saunders sketch. It's been revived only once since - as a Gheorghiu/Alagna vehicle - but with no megastars to demand its resuscitation this time round, one has to wonder why the Royal Opera House dug it up. Devoid of psychological insight or dramatic impetus, it serves the opera poorly. Gounod's music does its best to sweep you up in the young lovers' disastrous passion; Joël simply has you sniggering at the number of knobbly knees and saggy y-fronts on display.
With the megawatt presence of Bobby and Ange sparkling at its centre, the production's deficiencies wouldn't be as obvious. Instead we got the Andy Murray of tenordom, Piotr Beczala, and squally newcomer Nino Machaidze. There's no doubt Beczala can sing with great beauty, flair and technique, and he exudes a nice-guy aura that makes you warm to him instantly. But he remains stubbornly within his means, displaying the role instead of living it, and that's not what this music needs. Uncontrollable passion demands stepping a lot closer to the edge.
Machaidze, despite her truly dreadful French, grasped the style better. But it was only in the final stretch that her vibrato narrowed enough to reveal the melody she was supposed to be singing - Je veux vivre sadly went completely to the wall. She has real presence, an unselfish chemistry with Beczala, and worked hard to show the transformation from dutiful to distraught. But a hard edge to her voice suggests the sweet Juliette is not the greatest fit for her vocally.
The rest of the cast did a sterling job, the pick being Stéphane Degout's hot-blooded Mercutio. Darren Jeffery is still not quite old enough for the roles his deep voice fits - his Capulet was well-sung but lacked a degree of gravitas. Alfie Boe was well-cast as Tybalt - I find him (for now) so much more effective in a second-string role than the leads he's taken at ENO. Ketevan Kemoklidze, another Georgian like Machaidze, dispatched the Page's aria with stage-hogging charm.
The best thing about the evening was the bodice-heaving gusto of the orchestra under Daniel Oren - I'm seriously tempted to make a return trip for that alone. Otherwise it might have been four hours of the operatic equivalent of watching paint dry.
Production photos (above): Bill Cooper for Royal Opera House
Curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com