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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette

Roméo - Roberto Alagna
Juliette - Angela Gheorghiu
Mercutio - played by Pavel Novák / sung by Vratislav Kříž,
Capulet - played by Jan Šváb / sung by Aleš Hendrych,
Frère Laurent - played by Daniel Lipnik / sung by František Zahradníček
Paris - played by Marcel Acquarone / sung by Zdeněk Harvánek
Chorus played by members of the Czech National Opera / sung by Kühn’s Mixed Choir, Prague
Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Anton Guadagno
Barbara Willis Sweete (director)
Royal Castle of Zvilov (setting)
Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague (audio recording) 2002
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Picture Format: 16:9
Subtitles: GB, DE, FR, ES, JP, KOR
Region Code: 0
FSK: 12
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 109261 [73 mins]

When I requested this DVD to review, I had anticipated a complete performance, live from one of the major opera houses. What turned up was a film, in which the singers mimed to a pre-recorded soundtrack of bits of the opera. The running time of this DVD is 73 minutes, well under half the 180 minutes of the complete audio recording Alagna and Gheorghiu made in 1995. What we have here is the operatic equivalent of the old Readers’ Digest abridged novels.

Alagna played Roméo at Covent Garden with Leontina Vaduva as Juliette in 1994, a performance which was videoed and is readily available on DVD. Although he is certainly not bad in the film, he was better in every respect in the live performance. In the film he sings almost the whole role at a steady forte to fortissimo. Compare him in “Va, repose en paix”, the final part of the Balcony Scene, when Juliette has gone inside and he sends wishes that she sleeps well. His singing at Covent Garden was simply breathtaking in its honeyed sweetness and control of the pianissimo ending; in the film it is good, but no more. The poor man also has his only aria, “Ah lève-toi soleil”, cut to a derisory one minute and forty-three seconds, this being just the beginning and end sections cobbled together, whereas Gheorghiu not only gets to sing the whole of the Waltz Song but also “Amour ranime mon courage”, which is often cut even in complete performances. Gheorghiu is distinctly too mature and knowing for the ingénue role of Juliette, though she does sing very well, with even a reasonable trill, something she showed no evidence of possessing when she sang Marguerite in Faust at Covent Garden. For me, however, her voice is really too dark for this part.
That this is an entirely star-centric production is emphasised by the fact that all the other roles are, at best, cut to shreds: Stéphano and Gertrude disappear entirely and Mercutio, Frère Laurent and Capulet become merely cough-and-spit roles. It must be admitted that, in terms of their performances, this is no great loss; the lesser characters, with the exception of the wobbly and out-of-tune Frère Laurent, are all perfectly adequately sung, but none is more than that, and they are further hobbled by being performed by actors miming to the singers – only Gheorghiu and Alagna play themselves, so to speak. This even extends to the chorus, who are played by members of the Czech National Opera chorus, but sung by a different body altogether!

The visual side is pure chocolate box. The film and recorded soundtrack were made in the Czech Republic in 2002. The setting of the medieval Royal Castle of Zvikov is very pretty, though not remotely like Verona, but all the characters look like they have stepped out of a medieval shampoo advert. The director, Barbara Willis Sweete (now there’s an aptonym, at least on the basis of this film) has a large corpus of operas on her CV, but most are telecasts of New York Metropolitan performances, so her input was purely that of deciding how someone else’s production was shot. It seems to me that there is not a single memorable idea in the whole film, and much that is silly or amateur. Why on earth, for example, in the final scene does Roméo carry Juliette about a hundred yards out of the tomb, lay her on a convenient bench under the trees, then have his back to her the entire time that he is becoming convinced that she is still alive? The double fight scene between Tybalt and Mercutio and then between Roméo and Tybalt is pure am-dram. Surely one of the few ways in which a film of an opera can be better than a live performance is that such scenes can be much more exciting and realistic than singers are likely to be able to achieve on stage, but here there are a few perfunctory sword clashes and that’s it. Then, to add to the absurdity, despite both Mercutio and Tybalt receiving fatal wounds, there is not so much as a drop of blood to be seen on either of them. After these seismic events, Roméo and Juliette then nonchalantly walk away holding hands while the bodies are carried off. Nor does Ms Sweete, like most film directors who direct opera, seem to have any idea what to do with the chorus; they just stand around with vacant looks on their faces, which seem to show no comprehension at all of what is happening – they respond to Capulet’s ball and the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt with exactly the same indifference.

There isn’t really any point in continuing; I cannot believe that anyone, who is likely to read reviews on this website will want this DVD, especially when there is a vastly better complete EMI recording of the two principals conducted by Plasson on CD with an excellent cast of singers in the other parts. Alagna is best of all in the Covent Garden DVD (not to mention looking much more youthful and a good number of pounds lighter), and Leontina Vaduva is, for me, a more convincing Juliette. The Covent Garden performance also has the inestimable advantage of the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras – just listen, to take a small example, to his phrasing and judgement of rubato in the entr’acte at the start of Act 2 which represents Juliette asleep; it is simply perfection.

Paul Steinson



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