Met’s “Romeo et Juliette” is très exquis

Fri Mar 08, 2024 at 1:51 pm
Nadine Sierra and Benjamin Bernheim star in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

There are few perfect evenings in opera, but Roméo et Juliette on Thursday evening at the Metropolitan Opera provided one. With Benjamin Bernheim and Nadine Sierra, the Met has cast two singers who are at the height of their powers and ideally suited to their roles of Shakespeare’s star-crossed young lovers. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was also in top form drawing exceptionally beautiful and expressive playing from the Met Orchestra. 

First seen on New Year’s Eve 2016, Bartlett Sher’s staging is spare, efficient and true to the drama. It is also rather traditional, although the action is updated to 18th-century Verona. The tragedy unfolds in a town square surrounded by impressive stone buildings dominated by a sole Corinthian column. Center stage is a raised daïs that with minimum fuss that becomes a marketplace, chapel, bedroom, and tomb.

Visual interest comes from Catherine Zuber’s elaborate costumes. Masked revelers mark the time of year as carnival season. Gold confetti showers down during the masked ball in the Capulets’ palace. 

One of the loveliest sights was Nadine Sierra floating across the stage with little clouds of gold dust in her wake. It was a fairy-tale setting as magical as the soprano’s Juliette. The solemnity with which the sleeping Juliette was shrouded in white was an exquisitely poignant moment, only surpassed by her dying wrapped in the same cloth in the opera’s final moments.

Sierra’s youthful, vivacious Juliette was as enchanting visually as it was vocally. Her voice sparkled in “Je veux vivre”, popularly known as Juliette’s Waltz. What her roulades and trills lacked in lightness and pinpoint accuracy, was compensated by the joy with which she sang and the ravishing high C that capped the aria.

Gounod only added Juliette’s Waltz to the score at the insistence of Marie Miolan-Carvalho, who first sang the role. His focus was on “Amour, ranime mon courage,” which Juliette sings after she has taken the potion which will lull her to a death-like sleep. Sierra’s dramatic intensity and ravishing, full-bodied tone in the aria garnered her the loudest and longest ovation of the evening as she stood in the throes of death for what seemed an eternity never breaking character. 

Roméo is Benjamin Bernheim’s second role at the Met, having made his debut with the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 2022. He won rave reviews for those performances, but his Roméo cements his reputation as the finest French lyric tenor of the day. Bernheim may not be the most dashing or dramatic tenor to have ever sung the role, but he has few equals for the sensitivity of his acting and the sheer beauty of his voice.

In the opening scenes, Bernheim expressed his enchantment with Juliette in singing which was as tender as it was elegant. He coupled virility with vulnerability in “Ah! lêve-toi soleil,” the famous balcony scene where Roméo expresses his love for Juliette, topping off the aria with a ringing high B-flat. In the wedding night scene, Bernstein’s soft caresses added to the intimacy of the moment, as much as the music which Gounod composed for it. 

There was some excellent and exciting swordplay staged by B.H. Barry. As Mercutio, Will Liverman’s dynamic sword thrusts were countered by the vocally exciting and physically agile Tybalt of tenor Frederick Ballentine. Bernheim displayed equal finesse with a rapier as he avenged Tybalt’s murder of Mercutio.

Liverman also lent his fine voice and stylish singing to “Mab, la reine des mensonges,” in which Mercutio dismisses Roméo ’s strange dream of the work of a fairy. Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey likewise had a star turn as Stephano with “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?” in which she taunts the Capulets that Juliette, like the white dove of which she sings, may fly to freedom. 

The fine bass-baritone Alfred Walker made for a warm-hearted Frère Laurent, but he was eerily chilling as he instructed Juliette on how to take the poison. Eve Gigliotti was her usual formidable self both vocally and dramatically as Gertrude, Juliette’s nurse. Rounding out the cast was Nathan Berg’s intractable Capulet and the ever-dependable Richard Bernstein as the Count of Verona.

Magnificent as always, the Met chorus played a central role in creating the drama, beginning with the opening scene when they sang of the doomed lovers’ fate. The men were particularly impressive in “Mystérieux et sombre” at the beginning of the second act. 

In Roméo et Juliette, Gounod expressed emotion as effectively in the music which he composed for the orchestra as through the voice. It is a rare evening when playing of such luminosity and feeling such as Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra at this performance doesn’t receive the most enthusiastic ovation during the curtain calls. This was one of those occasions, when that honor fell to Sierra and Bernheim.

Roméo et Juliette runs through March 30.

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