Thursday, December 01, 2005

Balancing act

Bertrand de Billy, it seems, takes Gounod's Roméo et Juliette very seriously. (Seriously enough, it's rumored, to oust talented young diva/ham Jossie Pérez from most of the new production run.) It shows a trait that's served him -- and the house -- well in his role as ringleader of, among less over-the-top warhorses, the Met's Turandot circus.* He brings an unusually musical hand to these standards, with a strong sense of rhythm and pace. The sound he gets, though much better than the mere routiniers who preceded him, isn't the most refined... But then again, he's so far done revivals without, I assume, a huge amount of preparation time. The results have been commendable.

[*Incidentally, at least two friends have told me that seeing this Turandot almost put them off opera for life.]

So, in this first new production he's headlined, de Billy -- if the first and third performances were representative -- has pursued the serious path. He keeps a firm rein on the orchestra and singers, pushing them with energetic tempi and phrasing; by no means does he allow the evening to become the sort of relaxed star-singing exhibition that was the early-season Manon. That was a success; just the sort of success for which many come to the Met. But this run hunts other trophies.

Singing actress Natalie Dessay is on the same page, and perhaps pushed this approach. Not that her voice has given out -- it sounds a bit less purely focused, but may now be louder and somewhat darker. The hardness that was evident in her last, between-two-surgeries Zerbinetta run has gone. But stage presence and character have always been similarly-praised strengths.

Between these two principals (and the stage direction part of the production team, which Peter Davis attributes to Guy Joosten), the first half of the evening almost lights up the dull physical production. Dessay-as-Juliet is all youthful motion, whose newly-free newly-adolescent flirtation with Romeo -- culminating in a mock-swordfight -- is a physical revel. O'Flynn was much the same in her own performance, but Dessay goes further and actually inspires Ramón Vargas to his own youthful bounding. Meanwhile she (far more than Vargas) responds marvelously to de Billy's nervous and propulsive waves from the pit: they resonate through her body like ripples in a pond, as the base and contrast of the loving freedom she seeks.

Meanwhile Vargas -- unlike some other notable bel canto tenors of the day -- is, though light-footed, a naturally still man, displaying perhaps the same centered inertia onstage as in the temperament that makes his sweet voice so remarkably pleasant. For all his moving about the stage, it is still Juliet who pursues this Romeo, she who reflects on stage the lovers' precarious position with balance, tension, and some hard-earned grace. But that's enough.

*     *     *

Yet whether it's the troublesome floating bed business (and its high-concept largeness alone overwhelms many a nuance) or simply an exhaustion of ideas, inspiration quickly peters out after the intermission. Young and nervous becomes young and paralysed without much sign of maturation; no new note is struck in the love-scene to add to the characters' depth. So Dessay is hardly a presence in the tomb, the emotional charge of which therefore (mostly) turns on Vargas' vocal contribution. Surely neither she, de Billy, nor Joosten et al. had that in mind.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.