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Charles GOUNOD (1818-93)
Roméo et Juliette (1867)
Roméo (tenor) – Roberto Alagna
Juliette (soprano) – Angela Gheorghiu
Mercutio (baritone) – played by Pavel Novák, sung by Vratislav Križ
Capulet (baritone) – played by Jan Sváb, sung by Aleš Hendrych
Frère Laurent (bass) – played by Daniel Lipnik, sung by František Zahradnícek
Paris (baritone) – played by Marcel Acquarone, sung by Zdenek Harvánek
Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Anton Guadagno
Filmed on location at the Royal Castle of Zvícov, Czech Republic, 2002
Directed by Barbara Willis Sweete
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 706 [73 minutes]


This DVD is perfectly fine as long as it is accepted for what it is – not the ‘slightly abridged’ version of Gounod’s opera mentioned in the booklet, but a heavily truncated version that leaves it, effectively, as the Roberto and Angela show. Some readers may already be familiar with it, as it was broadcast on Channel 4 last year. As the above timing indicates, Gounod’s 150-odd minute five-acter is telescoped to roughly half its length. Actually, this is not as bad as it first appears, for given the nature of the project (ie. a location feature film) it is probably best to streamline events and help dramatic flow and interest for the viewer. Petr Weigl did a similar thing with his Eugene Onegin which, though not cut as heavily as this, was ‘trimmed’ here and there to keep (supposedly) a flow of plot and tension.

As with Weigl’s Onegin film, what tends to dominate here is the gorgeous location scenery. The medieval castle at Zvícov in the Czech Republic, has provided a sumptuous and evocative backdrop to the tragic events of the famous story, and on more than one occasion I was left thinking of a holiday there instead of what was happening to the ill-fated lovers. There is also the problem of filming outdoors and then lip-syncing the soundtrack. I didn’t like it in the Onegin film, and I’m not too convinced here. The director, Barbera Willis Sweete has decided she must keep everyone constantly on the move, in case the audience gets bored. So the whole thing starts with a formal, stylised procession for the whole cast (quite effective) but then has every scene dominated by walking or, in some cases, running. Maybe she likes the use of a steadycam, but we constantly follow the two main protagonists as they breathlessly wander the ramparts and surrounding countryside, either together or in search of one another. As they are usually singing arduous duets or arias at the same time, it jars the believability somewhat. I longed for some respite from the restless camera work, which is possibly why the lingering shots of the castle were a relief.

On the musical side, there is much to enjoy. I don’t like singers miming, even to their own voices, but when the singers are in great voice, as here, it is some compensation. Alagna and Gheorghiu made their Metropolitan debut in this opera, and it is superbly suited to their looks and talents. This piece has rather mischievously been described in the past as one long love duet with interruptions, and that is more or less what we have here. The two leads have all the great melodies, and in this version they are basically strung together. Plot inconsistencies almost cease to matter as we get tune after tune, delivered with style, feeling and sensitivity. It is a case of ‘sit back and enjoy’, and forget any worries about scholarly adherence to text, be it Gounod or Shakespeare.

The orchestra appears to be a chamber group from the Czech Philharmonic, and certainly sound well enough, though the conducting comes over as solid and workmanlike rather than inspired, which is not surprising. Straight actors are used for the minor roles, with different singers then dubbed. It is not terribly effective, but as these characters are very much on the periphery, neither is it too distracting.

There are no extras included on the disc. Booklet notes are minimal and more or less what you would expect, praise for the two leads and a justification for the cinematic approach. If you like this sort of thing (and given the state of classical music, there is presumably a ready public) don’t let me put you off.

Tony Haywood


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