Attending an event at Teatro ala Scala in Milan is always a grand event. Tourists and Milanese alike are dressed in their finery. It is as much of a social event as it is an artistic one. The last performance of Romeo et Juliette (1867) was just such a night.
This is not a commonly produced piece by French composer Gounod, in fact it has been absent from La Scala since its last staging in 1934. The production, directed by the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher, had been a success the Salzburg Summer Festival in 2008 with Netrebko and Villayon in the leads. This staging brings together two glamorous stars Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo. The La Scala opera was under the baton of young maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was recently named the eighth Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the American “big five” orchestras, to start the 2012-2013 season.
Upon entering the theatre, the curtain is already raised, already the line between the dramatics of attending La Scala has already begun to blur with that that is soon to occur on stage. The actors process out and then, very strangely an in an act that I still have yet to place significance, there is a group rape of the serving made on stage. No research suggests this to be in the work, nor was there ever any returning to the theme again later in the opera. It was most disturbing and extremely unnecessary.
Romeo (Italian Grigolo) is a powerhouse of a tenor at only 28 years of age. The strength and tenacity of his voice are astounding and he excelled within his musical phrasing. He brought Romeo through the impetuousness of youth through to a matured, heartfelt husband. Juliette (Georgian Machaidze), despite her horrific costumes which were both aesthetically and historically ill-chosen, was enchanting. The audience could not take their eyes off of this blossoming girl. She went through the character, moving from the young love-struck child into an anguished woman who gives her life to be with her husband. The death scene was truly moving.
There was a strong supporting cast that provided many comedic moments, particularly Paris. Tybalt (Juan Francisco Gatell) had a demanding stage presence. Mercutio (Braun) was a rapscallion through and through and successfully pulled off his “Ballade de la Reine Mab. Juliette’s maid Gertrude ( Susane Resmark) was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Yet the staging in the fight scenes was off. It seemed as if Mercutio died of little more than a paper cut and Tybalt was merely glanced. At this level, such basics need to be spot on.
As always, the La Scala chorus, dressed in exquisite 17th century costumes of Catherine Zuber, the likes of which are rarely seen today, was impeccable. Though the costuming did little to differentiate between the Capulets and Montagues.
Michael Yeargan’s set was uninspiring and remained the same throughout the three hours. There were moments of beautiful dawn lighting through the windows, but then a green was soon to emanate. I have never seen green light shine from the sun.
Someone would do well to remind the audience that applause is not necessary after each and every song. One would think that an audience of such stature would know better.
The performances were breathtaking, but the set and attention to detail was at times simply not intriguing enough. Gounod’s music, while beautiful, has a tendency to remind you of something else you have heard. It lacks a certain inspiration and originality much like this production.