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S & H Opera Review Broadcast Performance


French television viewers who tuned in Tuesday night to France 2 to watch a live performance of Romeo et Juliette from the summer festival in the lovely Southern French town of Orange found themselves watching a different drama played out on stage alongside the Shakespearean story. Instead of the Tuesday night performance, viewers were shown a tape of the opening night performance on Saturday night. There, while running offstage after Act III, Scene One, superstar tenor Roberto Alagna can be seen to badly sprain his ankle and had to finish the performance in obvious pain and nearly immobile. Sharing the starring roles with his wife, Angela Gheorghiu, this most famous operatic couple were compelled to improvise the staging of the final two acts and, in spite of all, delivered a passionate and triumphant performance.

The Festival Chorègies d'Orange, presenting the second and final opera of the summer, in the impressive, acoustically excellent 8,600 seat amphitheater from the Roman era, had selected this opera to be broadcast on national television because of the star power of its acclaimed, and reputedly difficult and demanding, couple. But there was no sign of dilettante behavior this night and the two stars, in top form, gave a performance that will remain long in the memory (and likely on video and DVD). Gheorghiu was a commanding, strongly sung Juliette and her voice soared along with the delicious melodies of Gounod. Her always on-target singing and strong control of the vocal line, while missing some of the fragility of the teenage heroine, was a significant lyric achievement.

But the real laurels go to the suffering Romeo who sang with such unrestrained passion and accuracy that it could have been the performance of a lifetime. His affinity with the French language - his birth language - and his effortless, golden tones reminded this listener of other legendary interpreters of this repertory like Alfredo Krause. Sensing that this was an 'occasion' he poured out his feelings and sang with a superb vocal artistry that sometimes eludes him on stage. The audience clearly appreciated his artistic commitment and urgently felt performance and cheered lustily when he was carried on to take his bows at the end.

This particular performance, likely chosen by the TV people for the real-life human drama involved, will add to the list of "show must go on" legends in opera and might mitigate some of the bruised feelings of some opera lovers who have suffered disappointing cancellations by these two. It is also a tribute to the theatrical skills of the lovebirds, both of who gave compelling performances despite having to toss out the weeks of careful rehearsals and just make do on stage. It is also a measure of the magic that can be created when a well-known masterpiece gets that added rush of adrenaline to give it new meaning and immediacy.

It should not be forgotten that there were others on stage that night. Acclaimed baritone Réne Pape was the ultimate in luxury casting as Frëre Laurent and the excellent Alain Vernhes was a sumptuous Capulet. The secondary roles, including the fine Anna Steiger as Gertrude, were uniformly well sung. Michel Plasson conducted his Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse and the chorus of the Opera of Nice with excellent style and sensitivity to the musical treasures in the score. The colorful costumes and the production, by Nicholas JoÎl, were equal to the other world class productions from Orange and, in sum, it was theater, and opera, at its best.

Frank Cadenhead


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