When Elaborate Productions Lack

“Roméo is half-hearted, but “Zazá” silky and “Guilliame” elegant

The Metropolitan Opera’s tepid new production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” demonstrates that a superstar diva plus shiny new sets and costumes can add up to something less than an exciting night in the theater.

The diva in question is Natalie Dessay, the coloratura soprano who has dazzled New York audiences with her vocal and physical acrobatics in “Ariadne auf Naxos “ and “Les Contes d’Hoffman.” In her first local performance of Juliette, the singer’s sparkle failed to ignite. Her mastery of French diction and musical style cannot be faulted, but Dessay’s brittle instrument lacks variety of color in the middle register, a major handicap in so lyric a role. Later in the performance her voice developed a noticeable flutter, especially on sustained high notes. Given that Dessay was performing under adverse circumstances—reportedly, a bad cold and a mid-performance fall onstage—it might be best to reserve further judgment.

More steady of voice than Dessay, but, alas, also less imaginative musically, was Ramon Vargas as Roméo. His silky tenor sounds a little smaller than I remember from recent seasons, and the traditional high C he took at the end of the third act was downright puny. On the other hand, Vargas spun out his “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” aria ravishingly, with a seamless legato and an effortless mezza voce. In the best of circumstances Vargas is only a passable actor, but here he looked distinctly uncomfortable prancing about in a purple crushed-velvet stirrup pants and doublet designed by Jorge Jara.

Neither Dessay nor Vargas made much impact dramatically in Guy Joosten’s bloodless production. Despite protracted pauses for “scene changes,” the unit setting hardly varied whether depicting ballroom, garden, bedroom, or tomb. Even the throngs of chorus and supers decked in Jacobean finery did little to dispel the overwhelming drabness. Joosten’s few original ideas violated the romantic feeling of the opera; for example, why does Juliette suddenly strip down to her underwear in the middle of her wedding ceremony? More to the point, why doesn’t anyone else onstage act as if this behavior is anything out of the ordinary?

The debut of baritone Stéphane Degout as Mercutio deserves a mention, too, less for vocal quality—hard to discern in this role anyway—than for debonair stage personality. His death at the end of the first half quenched this production’s last spark of vitality.

A pair of operas in concert demonstrated that elaborate production values are no match for the one-two combination of superstar singer and suitable vehicle. Teatro Grattacielo’s presentation of Leoncavallo’s “Zazà” (November 12) offered a tour de force for soprano Aprile Millo. Her voice has grown darker and richer in the upper-middle register where the composer sets the most important phrases of this long role. While she does not resort much any more to the detached piano tones of her earlier years, the singer now has access to a throbbing fortissimo that soars thrillingly into Alice Tully Hall. In verismo tradition, Millo expressed her character’s supersized emotion in the tear-jerking final act with a heart-rending stream of sobs and sighs.

The supporting cast included baritone Stephen Gaertner as the heroine’s vaudeville partner and confidant. He won a warm ovation for his silky rendition of the score’s best-known aria, “Zazà, piccola zingara.” Mezzo-soprano Eugenie Grunewald’s booming chest tones provided welcome comic relief as Zazà’s complaining mother. Less convincing was tenor Gerard Powers as the heroine’s married rat of a boyfriend, a role that calls for a fuller spinto sound than he was able to muster. After a scrappy first act, conductor Alfredo Silipigni whipped his pickup orchestra into shape, making the most of every heart-tugging rubato.

La Millo made an appearance the following night at Opera Orchestra of New York’s “Guilliame Tell,” cheering on tenor Marcello Giordani’s portrayal of the hero Arnold. He overcame slight hoarseness early in the evening to triumph with the notoriously difficult aria “Asile héréditaire” in the final act. His resplendent tenor leapt confidently to numerous high C’s and even a high C-sharp. A mid-scene standing ovation followed the aria, prompting conductor Eve Queler to signal for an encore. Giordani rose to the occasion with his longest high C’s of the night.

Obviously this kind of hypercharged excitement cannot be sustained for a whole evening, particularly when the opera is as long as “Guilliame Tell.” In the title role of Swiss patriot William Tell, Marco Chingari spun out the long lines of “Sois immobile” elegantly. If his portrayal as a whole was less than thrilling, that is perhaps because the tessitura lies low for his Verdian baritone. Similarly, the light soprano of Angela Maria Blasi sounded colorless in the midrange vocal lines of Mathilde, but she earned respect for her aristocratic phrasing and fluent coloratura.

Soprano Ellie Dehn in the travesty role of Tell’s son Jemmy did not make a convincing case for including this character’s aria. On the other hand, Stephen Costello in the cameo role of the Fisherman sounded like a star in the making, his pearly tenor soaring effortlessly to high C. Incidentally, Costello and Giordani confound conventional wisdom about dumpy, unattractive tenors. Though they were singing grand opera, these two looked ready for soap opera.

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