Review: The Met Opera’s ‘Romeo et Juliette’

Two performers kneel, singing, on a darkened stage
Nadine Sierra and Benjamin Bernheim. Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Oper

A week after it premiered its new La Forza del Destino and the umpteenth revival of Turandot, the Metropolitan Opera scored another resounding success with a rapturous Roméo et Juliette starring the near-ideal pairing of Nadine Sierra and Benjamin Bernheim.

While many consider Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff the greatest operas based on William Shakespeare’s works, Charles Gounod’s 1867 adaptation of the playwright’s star-crossed lovers has long held a high place in the standard repertoire. Only Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi—a work never performed by the Met and one that has Romeo as a mezzo-soprano trouser role—has challenged its supremacy as the most affecting musical Romeo and Juliet (leaving aside West Side Story, that is). Much of Gounod’s opera setting of a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré may today feel terribly old-fashioned, but his ravishing music for the lovers never fails to move modern audiences, especially when it’s performed with such passionate musicality as it was last week by Sierra and Bernheim.

They reached those expressive heights despite Bartlett Sher’s blandly efficient production that opened in late 2016 after being performed at the Salzburg Festival. Setting the action in the 18th century for no clear reason, the Met’s Roméo transpires entirely on Michael Yeargan’s drab unit set featuring the façade of a monumental Veronese palazzo, presumably belonging to the Capulets. Its most effective use comes during the famous balcony scene during which the newly lovestruck Roméo woos Juliette beneath her window. But the stony floor of the square in front of the palazzo, even covered by an enormous sheet, ill serves for the bed from which the lovers rise after a passionate night together—ouch!

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One wishes that Gounod had concentrated entirely on the lovers, for they elicited the score’s very best pages. But his opera faithfully features most of Shakespeare’s secondary characters, which the Met cast with savvy performers. Though she’s present on stage from the beginning, Samantha Hankey in the trouser role of Stéphane only gets her chance to sing in the middle of the third act (just after the Met’s single intermission), she made the most of her jaunty ditty which she capped with a sizzling high C! Though Sher’s hyperactive staging muddles the fatal stabbing of Mercutio, Will Liverman delighted as Romeo’s temperamental bestie, especially with his Queen Mab aria.

A less memorable character than in Shakespeare, Juliette’s nurse Gertrude bustled about (which Eve Gigliotti did with good humor), while Alfred Walker’s vibrant Frère Laurent made a stronger impact in that crucial role than is often the case. Turning the rejected Paris into a swishy goof did neither Daniel Rich nor the audience any favors.

French tenor Bernheim returned to the Met as Roméo after his successful debut last season as the Duke in Rigoletto. Gounod’s subtler hero proved an even more congenial fit for the stylish performer whose dreamy lover fell instantly for Juliette the moment he spied her at the ball. His hypnotically besotted “Ah, Lève-toi, soleil” sung to Juliette’s window gave notice that his was no fleeting infatuation.

Bernheim deemphasized the fiery temperamental side of Roméo, so his efficient killing of Tybalt scarcely registered. Though he amply demonstrated his skill at big forte high notes, he relished his frequent opportunities to softly pine for Juliette. He wholeheartedly embraced the hero’s romantic nature: rarely has a tenor appeared so in love with his soprano! But who could blame him when Sierra’s breathtaking Juliette was completely irresistible?

The heroine’s role includes a demanding virtuosic aria near the opera’s beginning while the remainder of her music requires more expansive, lyrical qualities. Juliette’s coloratura aria “Je veux vivre” found Sierra in frantic form; Sher has her prance about with girlish enthusiasm, which may have caused her to be less at ease in her florid frills. But from then on, as Juliette rapidly matured, and Sierra’s refulgent soprano blossomed

Her striking “Potion (or Poison) aria” during which Juliette makes up her mind to drink the sleeping draught offered to her by Frère Laurent used to always be omitted by sopranos at the Met. Sierra made cutting it unthinkable now as her stunningly committed rendition elicited a long and loud ovation. Her voice, throbbing with resolve, effortlessly filled the huge opera house.

But as impressive as each aria was, the pair’s four duets served up such intimate enchantment that people will be talking about them for years. Rarely in recent memory have a soprano and tenor’s voices matched so gracefully and with such a perfect blend—at times it felt as if they were singing with one voice. Though difficult to single out just one example, their exquisitely erotic “O nuit d’ivresse” made time stand still.

As the art form had only just arisen before he died, Shakespeare has Romeo die before Juliet awakens in the tomb. That situation wouldn’t do for opera, so composers from Gounod and Bellini to Zingarelli and Zandonai have ended their operas with a heart-wrenching duet as the lovers bid farewell to life on earth. When the sublime Sierra and Bernheim succumbed in a final embrace, muffled sobs were heard across the Met.

A veteran of the Met’s most recent, poorly received Faust, Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned to Gounod leading a lustrous performance that did its utmost to support its starry lovers. The rambunctious crowd scenes were pleasing, though the chorus perhaps sounded a bit fatigued from its concurrent Verdi and Puccini duties.

Roméo et Juliette continues at the Met through March 30th, and the March 23 matinee will be transmitted worldwide in HD. Like Forza and Turandot, it’s a poignant, unmissable treat. Will the Met’s winning streak continue with Puccini’s La Rondine opening on March 26 with Angel Blue falling for Jonathan Tetelman in his hotly-anticipated Met debut? Time will tell.

The Met Goes Three for Three with Sierra and Bernheim’s Unforgettable ‘Roméo et Juliette’

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