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Tuesday 25 June 2013

Roméo et Juliette at the Wiener Staatsoper


Not being the greatest Gounod fan, I mainly attended this performance of Roméo et Juliette to hear Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette), Piotr Beczala (Romeo) and Placido Domingo in the pit. This isn't a proper review, more a note on the performance.

First a note on the staging. It was pretty dire. Director Jürgen Flimm updates it to approximately the present day, but it's sort of difficult to tell because the set has very few components, and the costumes are very plain. Patrick Woodroffe's set/lighting design comprises five large pillars which continually move forward and backwards across the stage along radiating tracks to alter the size of the usable stage space. A lot of the lights are mounted to these pillars, so the light comes from behind the singers leaving them consistently under-lit, but with the black set there's also there's no clear idea of what is meant to be evoked here, beyond a slightly depressing and barren night club. Certainly Juliette's entrance bizarrely establishes her as a vampish "it-girl" singer, though the idea is hardly carried through and she quickly reverts to the more traditional view of the character as a naive, chaste teenage girl. Romeo is just an anonymous youth with a nice voice. The action blandly crawls on, no aria seeming motivated by anything that's happened on stage, there's no balcony (instead there's a little semicircular flap that raises up a little bit), and R&J are constantly being interrupted by people, running off stage, only to return for a final smooch. Once again, it was very clear that there had been little rehearsal as there was very little that was specific in any of the acting.

My experience with these two performances at the Wiener Staatsoper makes me realise how lucky we are in the UK - first that we always get well rehearsed casts from all of our major and minor companies, and second that the directors we attract/employ may actually not be too bad on average compared to what's available abroad! (However much we enjoy complaining!) There are things I've seen in Europe that I just can't imagine ever seeing from a UK company. I'm not talking about the notorious rape/blood/violence Regie productions that people love to rail on about, I'm talking about anodyne, mindless, unstylish, easily rehearsable stagings such as this one which have nothing to say about the piece, and risk absolutely nothing artistically. The Munich Traviata I reviewed is similar, and the Baden Baden Ariadne was also the same.

Sonya Yoncheva recently-ish won Placido Domingo's Operalia competition and is clearly a full lyric soprano voice of very considerable beauty. More than once I was reminded of the younger Gheorghiu in the voice's colour and texture. Juliette is usually seen as a lightish role because of the coloratura so it was unusual to hear it with such a voluptuous voice. Top notes are secure, and the legato is good, but on the other hand, the coloratura was quite variable, ranging from totally serviceable, to fairly approximate. I would have thought Countess/Donna Elvira/Donna Anna would be ideal at the moment, and perhaps Marguerite (though that sits quite low) might be a better fit. She certainly won't be held back by her looks either.

Tenor Piotr Beczala is a much more established singer of course and just as impressive. The voice is firm, bright and even through the range, though there are weird sobs that appear now and then, that I'm not sure are intentional. The very highest notes seemed a bit weird on this occasion - not bad by any means, but suddenly very covered and of a different quality to the rest of the voice. Both leads were interpretively a little bland, but working with this staging I'm willing to forgive a lot. (Incidentally I realised recently that Beczala can look uncannily like Liberace.)

Placido Domingo is famed for being a terrible conductor. He wasn't truly awful here, but there were quite a few moments where the orchestra were really not together with each other or the stage. This is the Vienna Philharmonic we're talking about (or some version of it) so there's a limit to how bad they can be; they were good in general, creating a lush body of sound that nevertheless never fought the singers.

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