When Vesselina Kasarova, Queen of Pants, signed up for this production (which premiered in March), there was some talk of it being her last-ever Romeo. However she's booked to return next year with Anna Netrebko, so perhaps she's not hanging up her boots just yet. And why should she? She still has all the notes. And her dashing Romeo convincingly displays the uncertainties of youth, whatever the calendar says.
Giulietta this time round was Ekaterina Siurina, who will be a hard act for even Netrebko to follow. Her liquid, silvery soprano traced every line with a fluid ease, and her natural sweetness and vulnerability tempered the slightly bonkers persona Giulietta assumes in Vincent Boussard's production.
In a conscious rejection of codpiece-opera, Boussard has created a hazy, dreamy world of shadows and symbols that reflects the inner selves of the young lovers. Their psychology is pushed to the fore and the rest of the plot sidelined. The inter-familial conflict is played down with nothing to visually differentiate the two families.
All the men ooze Dickensian menace in muddy biker wear and top hats. But there's no overt aggression (perhaps just as well - no house except Covent Garden can produce a credible fight scene). Tebaldo and Romeo, armed oddly with silver gloves instead of swords, have more of a chat than a scrap. And to give costume designer Christian Lacroix a bigger platform to display his talents (I can think of no other reason) a host of female supernumeraries spill out of multicoloured corsets and bunched crinolines, like ravished saloon girls. The acres of fabric are sure to go down a treat with co-producers San Francisco Opera.
It all looks très chic, though the resistance to creating adrenaline-fuelled peaks does expose the opera's inherent dramatic weaknesses.
The effect is magnified by the slow, ruminative conducting of Yves Abel and not helped on this occasion by what sounded like a total lack of rehearsal. The jolly overture (which famously gives not a hint of the tragedy about to unfold) sounded as if it was being played in about five separate rooms. Things gradually improved, but there was little consensus on phrasing or dynamic. A bit of a shambles, but perhaps inevitable. As with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, the sheer amount of varied material the orchestra must get through in Festspiele month means that not all of it gets quite enough practice before it turns up on stage.
Production photos by Wilfried Hösl (above) feature an earlier cast headed by Tara Erraught and Eri Nakamura. More production photos here.
Video trailer (with Kasarova and Nakamura, all music):
The same musical excerpts, plus interviews and chat:
Christian Lacroix discusses his costumes (partly in English):