Romeo & Juliet at the Met

Saturday's matinee at the Metropolitan Opera was Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet featuring Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Romeo, soprano Natalie Dessay as Juliet, and tenor Stephane Degout in his debut as Mercutio. Told in five acts, Romeo and Juliet is Gunod's adaptation of Shakespeare's story of the star-crossed lovers whose love trandscends their families' feud.

The opera's opening prologue witnesses the entire cast (in this case what seems the entire Met company) surrounding Romeo and Juliet as they lay on their funeral bed, chanting the end of the story. In act one, Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet family ball, while Tybalt maneuvers Paris toward marrying his young cousin. Act two is the famous balcony scene where Romeo and Juliet profess their undying love. Act three is broken into two scenes, first in Friar Laurence's cell where the lovers are married, and then the brawl where Mercutio is killed by Tybalt and then Tybalt by Romeo. The newlywed Romeo is then banished by the Duke. After the intermission, Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage and Juliet drinks the sleeping potion that ironically will bring about the death of her lover. In the final act, Romeo finds Juliet in the tomb, by all appearences dead, and drinks poison. Juliet awakens blisfully to find her husband present, but soon learns of his impending death. She plunges Romeo's dagger into her heart, and the two die in each other's arms.

Gunod's streamlining of the story allows for a series of maginificently lush and beautiful arias and duets sung by the stars. Dessay is the perfect Juliet, completely believable in every way. Her duets with Vargas nearly bring tears to your eyes. His lyric tenor is controlled and expressive, making the most of every single note. When Vargas, in the final act, sings "Our dream was too lovely..." your heart breaks. Not only does this duo sing, but they act as well.

This a new production, with completely new sets and lighting. The set is created in loving detail, but some will find it distracting. Also, the use of a very unhistorical homage to Galileo and his scientific comteplation of the universe seems oddly out of place. The director's attempt to play up the "star-crossed lovers" aspect of the story comes across as schtick, a slick attempt to make the opera more accessible to the MTV generation. The schmaltz reaches its zenith in the opening of the fourth act where Romeo and Juliet are in a flying bed, something more at home down the street on Broadway or maybe even on the other coast in Hollywood than in the Met theatre.

All in all, the singing is what the production is all about, and Dessay, Vargas, et all absolutely nail it. Bravo!