Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette - Opera in five Acts [179:35]
Roméo - Roberto Alagna (tenor); Juliette - Angela Gheorghiu (soprano); Friar Laurence - José van Dam (bass); Stephano - Marie-Ange Todorovitch (soprano); Mercutio - Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Capulet - Alain Fondary (bass); Gertrude - Claire Larchner (mezzo); Tybalt - Daniel Galvez-Vallejo (tenor); Benvolio - Guy Flechter (tenor); Paris - Didier Henry (baritone); Gregorio - Till Fechner (baritone); The Duke - Alain Vernhes (bass); Friar John - Christophe Fel (baritone); Manuela - Anne Constantin; Pepito - Doris Lamprecht; Angelo - Yann Beuron
Choeur et Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. October 1995, Halle aux grains, Toulouse
extra CD with synopsis, text and translations in French, English and German
EMI CLASSICS 6 40700 2 [3 CDs: 64:26 + 63:14 + 51:55]
The list of sources from which Gounod derived his operas includes such literary masters as Molière, La Fontaine, Mistral and Goethe, as well as Shakespeare. In some cases the adaptations needed to turn them into operas resulted in works a long way from their sources, Faust being the most obvious example. La Nonne Sanglante is another = derived from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and brought to mind by the recent and very successful recording.
Roméo et Juliette does not suffer from such problems. The librettists, Barbier and Carré, certainly took a bold line with the play, concentrating on the two main characters. They used as many lines directly derived from Shakespeare as they could and overall this is no travesty of its source. The librettists’ achievement can be ranked with that of Boito in Otello and Falstaff, and Gounod made from their work what is in many ways his best opera. The present recording takes it sufficiently seriously to use what I take to be its final form as revised for performance at the Paris Opéra in 1888. In particular this involved the addition of a pleasant if irrelevant ballet in Act 4 which holds up the action to little dramatic or musical advantage but can easily be omitted by the listener.
The opera follows Shakespeare in starting with a brief introduction in which the chorus set the scene of the two warring families in Verona. Straightaway the virtues of the recording become apparent, of flexibility, care for the text and clear and well balanced sound. My only concern was that at times Michel Plasson seemed to be taking the music somewhat slowly, even ponderously, but this was not enough to spoil my very considerable enjoyment. I have to admit to some lessening of pleasure in Act One when Juliette sings her notorious waltz song (Je veus vivre}. This was a late addition to the opera, and it tends to portray the young heroine more as a sophisticated partygoer than the rather more innocent girl of Shakespeare’s, and I think Gounod’s, intentions. It can be sung in a way that suggests such innocence - I have a recording of a very young Julie Andrews that does just that - but it is not the case here. Like so many of her predecessors Angela Gheorghiu goes all out to make the most of it, and perhaps this may be the right approach but for me it reduces the impact of the drama. Gounod’s scoring implies large voices for both of the lovers, but for the drama to make its maximum impact they need to be able to sing with lightness and flexibility. Few singers are able to achieve this, although recordings of the part of Roméo by Kraus and Björling are as close as I hope to hear to this ideal. Both Gheorghiu and Alagna, especially the latter, have a tendency to hardness in their upper register where lightness and purity are ideally needed.
These comments are however typical of the critic who is never satisfied. Both singers do have the kind of flexibility of dramatic approach that is a key requirement, and they react to each other in a dramatically believable way. The other roles are all well taken, especially Simon Keenlyside with his wonderfully scored aria as Mercutio, and Alain Fondary as an appropriately solid Capulet. As I have said earlier, chorus and orchestra are excellent, and Michel Plasson understands the idiom well even if at times I would have preferred a lighter, swifter, approach.
Despite my reservations, this is a well considered and enjoyable performance of an opera which tends to lie on the edge of the repertoire. My dreams of ideal performers of the leading roles are probably unrealistic and this is probably as good as it is reasonable to expect - and in many respects much better. I am no enthusiast for reading libretti on a computer screen but at least the extra disc does give access to the very necessary text and translations.
John Sheppard 

A well considered and enjoyable performance. Probably as good as it is reasonable to expect - and in many respects much better.