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Charles Gounod: Romeo et Juliette - Villazon/Machaidze
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The sensational hit of Salzburg's 2008 festival season arrives on DVD! Starring tenor Rolando Villazón in a stunning performance, this was the must have ticket of the season. Soprano Nino Machaidze, only 25 years old, burst upon the Salzburg stage with an emotionally vulnerable and vocally spectacular performance. With movie star good looks and a large, warm voice, Machaidze wowed the press and audiences alike. Tony Award winner (South Pacific) Bartlett Sher directs this production of Gounod's classic opera. With sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, the visually vibrant production is sure to become the benchmark. Bonus materials includes "Salzburg Impressions--Behind the Scenes of Roméo et Juliette," "Love and Death in Verona" and Villazón giving an introduction to the opera.
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The acting is better than I'm seeing lately in many 5 star, top of the line, big name productions.
The singing is in French but done "Italian Style"? Funny, I have a little coffee business and we sell French Roast, Italian Style. It's a big seller (our best) so I wouldn't be too critical of that! The singing is wonderful. The cast sings their hearts out. I love that feeling when I finish watching a DVD that makes me wish I could personally applaud the cast. There are great productions and there are good productions where the cast connects with the audience and delivers an authentic opera experience. Opera was entertainment for the masses---think about vendors hawking food during an opera. These operas, romances, good guys vs bad guys, sword fights, evil priests, pokes at the nobility---these are great fun. This is the sort of opera that gives us the flavor of an 18th century experience.
It's a ball! I wish everyone could see this and enjoy the beautiful sounds of Bel Canto, the fun of a good story done well, and a cast that wants to deliver a good time.
Loosen your tie and enjoy this opera.
My first experience with Romeo was in the mid/late 1960s, as I recall, when the Met still toured and Detroit had not begun its sad descent to being the Beirut of the midwest. Corelli and Freni were the lead singers, and were obviously not fluent in French. But the opera was a solidly excellent performance I do not recall seeing it onstage again But there have been several renditions, first on LP, and later on CD. To me, it is a hugely melodic score, challenging to the performers, but a delight to the ear.
This is my second DVD of the opera, the first being the wonderful performance at Covent Garden with Alagna and Vaduva. I regard both versions as essential components of an opera collection (at least in mine), with relative strengths (and few weaknesses) that do not permit me, at least, to prefer one to tne other; both will have multiple plays here, no doubt.
I read an interview with Ms. Machaidze in which she noted that she had one month to learn an operatic role with which she was totally unfamiliar, and in a language with which she was similarly unfamiliar. Ma foi! That seems daunting, at least to me. Yet, even with her French being imperfect, she does a stunning rendition of Juliet, even capturing the persona of a 15 year old girl at her coming out party (at least as much as this old geezer can remember what THAT was all about!). She has a remarkable lyric voice, supple and agile, lacking the extended range of a true coloratura, but still an excellent and credible Juliet. I look forward to hearing more of her work.
I cannot add much to the many rave reviews of Ramon Villazon; to me he is a near "force of nature". His performance in L'Elisr d'Amore with Netrebko may be the best operatic experience in my life, and that is saying a lot. I did get the sense from his upper register on this disc that he may have been experiencing some of the vocal difficulties that led to his recent surgery, but that did not diminish in any way from a stellar performance.
Another plus is that ALL of the supporting cast sang and performed with a very high level of excellence.
As for the staging, at first I was a bit put off by the minimalistic approach, but it didn't take long for me to realize that it worked. The orchestra and conductor also were a big positive in this excellent performance.
Disc quality was what I have come to expect from DGG. The picture was crisp and clear and the surround sound added that ambiance that makes the DVD the next best thing to live performances. Pity (or envy) my neighbors now that the weather permits open windows.
I live in a rural area where live opera ain't. But high quality DVD performances permit me to indulge my operaphilia to a much greater degree than would be permiited of my wallet if the real thing was available.
This Romeo is an exceptionally good performance.
Librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré chose to stay much closer to their dramatic model, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Obviously they needed to trim a lot of scenes from the play in order to let the music breathe. In fact, most modern productions of Shakespeare's play are also abridged, and the affect and effect of the staging can be radically different, depending on the cuts. Shakespeare's R&J is a complex tragicomedy. There are some knee-slappingly funny scenes, especially in the Capulet home, which are altogether too often cut in stagings. There's also tremendous bawdy wit in Shakespeare's text; Mercutio is as quick-tongued as he is quick-sworded. Surely he was the prototype for Rostand's Cyrano. This opera libretto, for better or worse, eliminates ALL the humor from the drama and all the wit from the dialogue. Shakespeare's play depicts, inter alia, the absurdity capriciousness of adolescent Love, and the fatal folly of trying to exploit private passions for public goals. Gounod's opera is only the passionate physical love tragedy of the play, with none of the 'clutter' of Shakespeare's late-Renaissance social philosophy.
So that's what's missing, and I can imagine being annoyed by the reduction of Shakespeare's multi-faceted tragicomedy to a mere melodramtic love story. But I'm not annoyed or dissatisfied, because the music amply compensates, in its emotional fervor, for the shallowness of the drama.
Now I need to confess that this is the only production of this opera that I've heard or seen. Hey, I can say without shame that it's THE BEST! And I wouldn't be surprised if it is indeed the best, at least among the DVD choices. It was mounted on the modest stage of the Salzburg Mozarteum, and it doesn't make 'a big deal' of scenery. The costumes are reasonably colorful and grand, though one's brain gets scrambled at seeing a 19th C opera costumed in 18th C style, representing a play from 1600 depicting events in 15th C Verona. The Mozarteum Orchestra, under Yannick Nezet-Seguin, delivers Gounod's fairly cogent score quite convincingly. But the principal thing here is the singing and acting of the Principals, Nino Machaidze as Juliette and Rolando Villazón as Romeo. [There's also the technical question of sound recording. In too many opera DVDs, the imbalance between the orchestra and the singers -- the acoustic sense that the singers are a soccer field behind the violins -- negates any expressiveness in the voices. I'm glad to say that isn't the case on this DVD.]
Machaidze is attractive enough to act the role of Juliette. Yes, in our era of filmed operas, "looks" do matter. She plays the first half of the opera, coyly and artfully, as a spoiled silly 14-year-old. But there's an odd contrast in store, as she seems to 'age' in personality in time for the tragedy, to become a fully adult woman. Is that a weakness in her acting, or in the operatic drama itself? I lean toward the second, but I don't have another production with which to compare. Machiadze's singing is uniformly controlled, well-tuned, well phrased. Some devotees of the divas of the past generation will undoubtedly fault her for lack of forceful emotive projection, but me, I'm happy when a soprano or alto can make "music" of her arias within the context of the total score, and Machaidze does that.
Villazón is another matter. His singing is both superbly emotive and technically polished, but his acting presence is so potent that one almost forgets to notice his vocal prowess. He was born to star in the era of filmed operas with camera close-ups. How he can contort his masculine face into such masks of emotion and yet sing in tune is a physical wonder! And he has variety in his command of roles, unlike the superb Juan Diego Flores who is always the same smirky guy on stage. There could be a classic rivalry, if the world cared to notice, between Flores and Villazón, parallel to the furious rivalry of the 1980s and 1990s between Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Flores, born in Peru in 1973, has the more lovely timbres, while Villazón, born in Mexico in 1972, has the more potent dramatic musical presence.
One further note, and it's about the 'notes' given in one gorgeous aria to the otherwise background character Stephano, the Montagu hothead who starts the quarrel in which Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. That aria is sung by Cora Burggraaf, costumed boyishly of course, with a pencil-thin moustache and red lipstick. It's possibly the best music per se in the show, and Burggraaf sings it beautifully. Hey, Charles Gounod? Rise from the tomb, please, and expand the role of Stephano by at least one more aria!