Stephen Barlow’s revival of Nicolas Joël’s production of Roméo et Juliette is a resounding success. In the title roles Piotr Beczala and Nino Machaidze have a chemistry that keeps us transfixed, while the pair also maintain our interest by presenting two very different personalities.
As Roméo, Beczala has an ethereal presence. Even when others inhabit the stage, he frequently sings his solos to the front, as if caught up in his own dream world. His performance bursts with inner intensity, and the fact that his persona transcends his situation enables him to push his voice on to ever greater heights. There are apparently no limits to its ability to expand and produce the most light, yet textured and full tenor sound.
In direct contrast, Machaidze, making her Royal Opera House debut, imbues Juliette with a vast range of human emotions. As she sings Je veux vivre in Act I she presents some highly realistic actions such as clasping her hands together or adjusting the folds of her dress, her voice growing richer and more resonant the higher it goes. Even here, however, having presented this joyful, excitable youth, she soon falls to her knees and hints at the depth of understanding that is inherent in her character. In the same way that Juliette gives her whole being to Roméo, even when he has killed her cousin, so Machaidze puts her all into this performance.
These contrasts in personality manifest themselves in the highly emotive balcony scene. Roméo appears to be on cloud nine from start to finish as first he sings Ah! lve-toi, soleil!, and then shows how his infatuation has made him almost entirely oblivious to the concept of danger. In contrast, the scene sees Juliette go on a long emotional journey. When she first appears she seems anxious and weary. The strength of her love, however, rapidly transcends this, and there is a lovely moment when she puts her hand to her lips before stretching it out to (nearly) touch Roméo’s. For Juliette, however, desire and rationality still blend as she insists that she must walk away if Roméo cannot declare his absolute love for her.
The supporting cast is superb. Darren Jeffery as Count Capulet comes across as so hearty in Act I and so deeply sincere in Act IV that it is easy to forget it is his outlook that is fuelling the hatred and violence. As Frre Laurent, Vitalij Kowaljow’s firm, strong voice helps to add gravitas to the marriage scene, while as Stéphano, Ketevan Kemoklidze gives a sumptuous performance of Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle. Diana Montague is also effective as Gertrude, Stéphane Degout is a powerful Mercutio, and Alfie Boe proves a fine actor in the role of Tybalt.
The productions concept is very traditional, and the sets which provide stylised depictions of towers, columns and churches feel uninspiring. While, however, I am all for innovation in the opera house, I do not support cutting edge productions for the sake of them. Notwithstanding the fact that there are more modern productions of Roméo et Juliette out there, it is hard to see how this one would genuinely have benefited from a more innovative set.
Bruno Boyer’s lighting, on the other hand, is highly effective. The tumultuous fight at the start takes place under subdued lighting, which then dominates throughout as if to emphasise the inevitable fate that awaits the lovers. Colour is also a key feature in certain scenes. The guests wear sumptuous costumes at the ball, where masks do not simply hide the physical. When characters remove theirs, it is clear they are revealing their innermost feelings as much as their faces.
The chorus is also excellent, sounding haunting in the prologue, exuberant at the ball and utterly intense at the end of Act IV. In the pit, Daniel Oren hardly puts a foot wrong in producing sounds appropriate for each scene. The opening, which depicts the bloody rivalry between the families, is full-blooded, thick and rhythmically superlative. The start of Act II at Juliette’s balcony introduces some beautifully understated and melancholic playing, while in Act III in Frre Laurent’s cell the sound is both rounded and intense.
For me, however, it is the performances of Beczala and Machaidze that will live longest in the memory. Whether Machaidze is giving her all as she contemplates taking the poison, Beczala is grieving over Juliette’s body in ma femme! ma bien-aime!, or the pair are kissing and dying in each others embrace, they never cease to be captivating.