To all those theater lovers who never go to the opera, please take note. Vittorio Grigolo in his L.A. Opera debut is delivering an extravagant and yet utterly heartfelt Romeo that recalls the young John Barrymore. OK, we know Barrymore’s Shakespeare work only from photographs, but Grigolo connects all those gloriously over-the-top romantic poses with the extraordinary grace of a trained dancer in this revival of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, who wants realism when you can have this kind of stage magic?
Did I mention that Grigolo possesses a world-class voice, hailed at the Met and Covent Garden, and the body of a professional soccer player? There will be quibbling from some crix corners that he’s not a true French stylist. He’s too unreserved a performer. Granted, his Romeo might be better served if his vocal delivery wasn’t quite so full tilt at times. The real beauty of this tenor lies in his mezza voce, which he spins out with an amazing legato.
Who wouldn’t run to see his Faust or Werther? Grigolo’s real fach is probably the verismo roles of Puccini, Giordano and Mascagni. But he’s young, he can wait before he taxes his voice with some of those heavier roles.
At the risk of carrying the French/Italian thing too far, it’s good to remember that Romeo and Juliet is a Verona-set story immortalized by the Bard and musicalized here by Gounod, and that Grigolo and his Juliet, Nino Machaidze, are Italian singers who bring the tale back to its native land. And to introduce yet another full circle, it’s also appropriate that Grigolo’s nearly nude love scene here in Hollywood owes much to Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” for Paramount Pictures. Yes, there’s much here for non-operagoers.
Machaidze’s steely soprano weaves nicely with Grigolo’s fine-grained tenor. She sometimes gives only an approximation of the role’s requisite coloratura and her energy flagged in the potion aria, but in those moments with Grigolo, she matches his emotionalism note for note.
Placido Domingo takes a very stately grand opera approach to this less-than-genius work, and without the dynamism of Grigolo and Machaidze to propel the music, the performance switches to automatic pilot whenever the supporting players take stage.
John Gunter’s iron-scaffold sets recalls the old Penn Station in director Ian Judge’s clever update to the 19th century. Chorus singers wearing hoop skirts should be advised how to walk up and down open staircases without exposing their underwear, but otherwise, his direction creates beautiful stage pictures. Ed Douglas choreographs some thrilling fights, and Judge’s decision to have Romeo kill Tybalt (Alexey Sayapin) with a gun rather than a knife fits right into Grigolo’s grand interpretation. This Romeo hates just as big as he loves.