Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet” in about 1595 and Charles Gounod adapted it into an opera in 1867, but for his debut at the Salzburg Festival, director Bartlett Sher (whose “South Pacific” revival was the major Broadway event of the past season) sets the work in the late 18th century. No reason for the update is stated, but it certainly offers four-time Tony winner Catherine Zuber the opportunity for a dazzling, non-stop parade of richly detailed period costumes.
Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule features an inordinately wide and very shallow playing area surrounded by three tiers of arches cut into the side of a mountain several centuries ago — recognized by most people today as the site of the song contest in the film of “The Sound of Music.”
Sher has maximized the venue’s potential by using the entire width of the stage as well as placing characters in the arches (the lovers are first glimpsed running on different levels in opposite directions) and in the arena-style auditorium. Page boy Stephano (mezzo-soprano Cora Burggraaf in a “trouser role”) enters from the top of the hall, runs down an aisle and begins his aria balanced on the balustrade separating the really expensive seats from the obscenely expensive ones.
Fortunately, the cast is young — Nino Machaidze (Juliette) is only 25, and Rolando Villazon (Romeo) is practically the senior member at 36 — deeply committed, and has the energy to keep Sher’s well-thought-out action moving, which is no small feat with a five-act French grand opera.
The direction is basically straightforward, enabling one to focus on this intimate version of the immortal tale, greatly simplified by its librettists to concentrate not so much on the societal aspects of the family feud, but on the lovers and those closest to them.
The raucous, swashbuckling fight scene staged by B.H. Barry offers edge-of-the-seat excitement and spills into the audience. Mercutio (Russell Braun), costumed as a refugee from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” is an expert swordsman but falls to Tybalt (Juan Francisco Gatell) after being distracted when a huge white canopy is cut down.
Given the space, there’s not much Michael Yeargan — or any other designer — can do but provide bits of atmosphere. Other than colorful baskets of fruit and other marketplace wares in the duel scene, there is a Roman column, and a huge set of bronze doors which descend from on high to suggest the entrance to the Capulet crypt. A raised central plinth, roughly the dimensions of a bowling alley lane, provides a focal point.
The evening’s stars are 33-year-old Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, drawing a rich, idiomatic performance of Gounod’s lush, romantic score.
Machaidze, well on the way to stardom with a packed schedule including a Metropolitan Opera debut, is a truly girlish Juliette. She proves the depth of her talent in the lengthy, often-deleted scene where Juliette debates taking the sleeping potion.
Among a uniformly superb cast, standouts are Braun’s rakish, quicksilver Mercutio; Mikhail Petrenko’s sonorous, sympathetic Friar Laurent; Burggraaf’s feisty Stefano; and rotund Susanna Resmark’s lusty Gertrude, boisterously lifting Gregorio (the excellent Jean-Luc Ballestra) off his feet.
Following a six-month hiatus, Villazon resumed his career in January in the demanding role of Massenet’s Werther. While he makes an impetuous Romeo with matinee idol good-looks and phrasing so gorgeous it raises gooseflesh, his voice began to show signs of strain in the middle of the third act. He finished the performance underpowered and cracked several notes. Perhaps a lighter schedule is in order: It would be a tragedy for such a multitalented and beloved artist to burn out before he even hits 40.