It was one of those dream happenstances: a night at the opera wondrously sung by all, conducted and directed with exactly the right spirit, staged with high imagination. Yet all this splendor, alas, was lavished by the Los Angeles Opera on Saturday night on nothing more deserving than Charles Gounod’s leaden musical treatment of Shakespeare’s immortal “Romeo and Juliet,” beside which even his more popular but equally clunky version of “Faust” seems positively airborne.
Jules Barbier and Michel Carre fashioned the text, clipping Shakespeare’s wings here, contriving their own textual artifice there; Gounod followed their example with music drenched in goo. Marvelous as the L.A. Opera’s lead singers, Russian diva Anna Netrebko and newly arrived Mexican heartthrob Rolando Villazon, were in projecting the youthful ardor of the tragedy-crossed lovers — including a bedroom scene with bare abs and pecs agleam in the glow of early dawn — one came away with memories not of the music’s heat, merely of its humidity.
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In sight and in sound, in fact, the two of them made pretty much a dream team: Villazon with his appealing agility, up and down ladders, onto balconies and into hearts; Netrebko with her tones of pure silver turning her Waltz Song, the opera’s one famous tune, into the essence of moonbeam.
Behind them was an assembled cast also of memorable quality: Marc Barrard’s Mercutio to sing of mischievous Queen Mab; Suzanna Guzman with her few crusty lines as Juliette’s Nurse; super-cute Anna-Maria Panzarella for Stephano’s one song (Balthasar in Shakespeare).
John Gunter’s sets, a series of movable three-story scaffolding units, were nothing to look at in themselves but served nicely to move people up, down and around the vast stage; combined with Tim Goodchild’s lavish period costumes and director Ian Judge’s familiar keen sense of crowd management, they supplied the color variety that Gounod’s score did not.
In his local debut, French conductor Frederic Chaslin did what he could to impart a sense of movement to his countryman’s basically motionless score. Like the lovers within the opera, he, too, was star-crossed.