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Star-Powered Lovers Shine in LA Opera's "Roméo et Juliette"

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, November 08, 2011, at 11:27AM
LA Opera - Roméo et Juliette Robert Millard

Nino Machaidze as Juliette and Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo

And you thought there would never be another “Roméo et Juliette” cast to equal the blazing Villazon-Netrebko duo? Not possible to match those headliners LA Opera gave us six years ago?

Now think Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze, young novas who can galvanize stage action, sing to the heavens and look unspeakably gorgeous while they’re at it.

Needless to say, these two wowed the opening night audience. This Romeo clambered up and down John Gunter’s cleverly-functioning three-story unit set with the agile urgency of a stunt man. And he threw himself into the knife-fight with Tybalt (no swords here) so hard, so expertly and so physically that it was no wonder Kirk Douglas, in a seat nearby me, probably said to himself, “This guy should be in movies!”

Grigolo even finessed the bedroom scene -- with the star-cross’d teens draped in white silk sheets – by showing his well-muscled torso (wash-board abs, anyone?) and artfully pulling on his boxers, while staying covered.The only downside Sunday, no thanks to the makeup department, was that, at his entrance, those natural black curls did not tousle becomingly along his face but instead seemed to be harnessed by a hair net.

For her part, the Georgian soprano’s cheek would shame the stars shining in the sky. Whether leaning down, yearningly, from her balcony or flying around the courtyard to rendez-vous with Romeo, this Juliette defined the smitten girl who would rather die than live without her lover. (It’s important to remember, though, that Machaidze’s performance here last season in “Il Turco in Italia,” was the comic cat’s meow. Surely her characterization, so deeply, outrageously, hip-switchingly funny -- all the way to the eyelashes -- is worthy of a time capsule archive.)

But Juliette, in the hands of Gounod, is fairly confined to the demure and pretty model of a 19th century heroine. Director Ian Judge helped that image along (pace, Shakespeare) by turning the 1st act ballroom into something out of “Traviata” – consistent with moving the time frame from 14th century Verona to the 1860s. No shy child discovering her puberty here.

On to the singing: Grigolo, whose European career is festooned with pop—he went from a papal choir to duets with the Pussycat Dolls and, even here, he did a stint in “Dancing with the Stars”—has arena shows on his calendar.

But he is the real lyric-tenor thing, the possessor of a bright, full voice with rounded tone that can sound quite good in the French repertory. In the balcony scene his ardent singing was wonderfully expressive and nuanced. Elsewhere, he sang full out as a rule, even when unnecessary, even when less would have been more, when gauging and coloring would have lent a finer dramatic profile. One wag mentioned that he didn’t take the optional high C.

Used to roaring ovations at curtain-call time, Grigolo gave extravagant bows, thumping his chest to suggest gratitude, circling his arms to signal embrace of the crowd.

Machaidze, also of commanding voice and facile technique, sings with the Slavic sound – a little metallic on top, covered tones in the lower register. She always comes through with the goods, even if the famous coloratura aria “Je veux vivre,” turned a little brittle, as is often the case, being at the un-warmed-up start of the opera.

The rest of the cast also kept things lively, especially Museop Kim, an animated Mercutio with an open, appealing baritone and Alexey Sayapin as a wily Tybalt.

Plácido Domingo, conducting Gounod’s formula opera, drew out the score’s perfumed sweetness – to the point of reminding us that Hollywood composers of the 40s and 50s modeled their saccharine love themes on music like this – and did a highly creditable job coordinating stage and pit.

LA Opera's production of Roméo et Juliette runs through November 26.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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