There’s nothing like a starry cancellation to put a major damper on a premiere. The ailing Natalie Dessay, arguably the greatest coloratura soprano onstage today and one of the most frequent no-shows in the biz, was replaced by Maureen O’Flynn as the femme lead in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” While Monday night’s gala crowd at Lincoln Center seemed not unhappy, they greeted O’Flynn’s beautifully nuanced singing with lukewarm applause. But by final curtain, it was apparent that her Juliette was the major reason to hear Gounod’s warhorse — no small praise considering she was surrounded by a first-rate, if not inspired, cast and production.
Granted, O’Flynn’s vocal entrance was unsteady, and she seemed to be gasping for a needed breath. Considering the circumstances, she could be indulged that nervousness. Soon thereafter, she settled into the part to prove herself not only a superb technician, with the full coloratura arsenal at her disposal, but a sensitive interpreter who gave shape to Gounod’s sometimes bombastic music. Throughout her range, there are real, varied colors, and if the voice occasionally veers toward a whine to display those colors, O’Flynn always keeps her attacks clean. Renee Fleming can take note.
Juliette, of course, is only half the show. Romeo was sung by Ramon Vargas, who gets a lot of work these days at the Met. His lyric tenor is a bit plusher than what the French repertoire usually calls for. The legendary Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus, as well as the current Robert Alagna, brought a slightly vinegary tang to this music. The Met’s last production of “Romeo et Juliette,” in the late 1960s, was staged for the great Italian tenor Franco Corelli, who essayed the role a few years later in his unannounced farewell to Gotham. Vargas is a conscientious musician, but until his final scene in the tomb, he sounded tentative. The singer was not well served by director Guy Joosten, who envisioned Romeo and Juliette as a pair of spunky teens and not the noble, elegant lovers that the music keeps telling us they are under Bertrand de Billy’s expansive baton. Vargas expressed his love for Juliette by spending too much time rolling around on the floor. His best moments were in their duets, when he simply held her tightly and let his fine-grained tenor serve as an effective backdrop for her much more focused sound.
Set designer Johannes Leiacker appears to have conjured up the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci to paint the handsome woodcut flats and geometric sky. The “2001: A Space Odyssey” displays didn’t always make for the most intimate drama but never failed to dazzle. Jorge Jara’s costumes and David Cunningham’s lighting bathed everything in attractive, autumnal colors. The rotating playing area, meant to symbolize the earth, is a bit of a cliche these days, and recalls NYCO’s famous “Mefistofele” production. Leiacker’s bare stage also doesn’t give much support for non-actors like Vargas, who could use a little furniture to chew on.