Grand young opera

Culture | Stars and technology for the MTV generation

Issue: "Foster or faster?," June 6, 1998

Opera's hottest property these days comes in the form of a pair of newlyweds performing Gounod's Romeo and Juliet together. They are not only young and talented, they even look like one would imagine the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's tragic play. EMI signed Roberto Alagna for exclusive recording rights a few years back when he was appearing on the horizon. Now, it has him in what is arguably his best role (he also does Verdi tenors). His wife, Angela Gheorghiu, whose debut as Violetta in La Traviata in 1994 sent critics raving, is a rising star in her own right.

What is unique about this newest EMI release is the interactive CD capabilities. Yes, for you opera lovers with multimedia computers, you can now watch real-time video footage of some scenes, read a plot summary, or read the cast's credits. This is also a wonderful tool for music educators.

All this, plus Mr. Alagna and Ms. Gheorghiu have just signed contracts with the Metropolitan Opera in New York for 1998 performances of Romeo and Juliet, as well as other operas. For a young couple just starting out, this is not shabby.

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What might be termed a fairy-tale existence by the recently married singers is made possible by their gorgeous vocal sound, their obvious talent, and a lot of hard work. In no way does their youth get in the way of the performance, at once fully mature and in places brilliant. Yet the recording plods along in many places. For this reason the three-CD set is a treat for serious opera lovers, but not newcomers.

Shakespeare and opera can mix, when the libretto (the "book" or text) flows evenly and keeps the original plot in the forefront. Gounod's librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, have significantly altered the original to popularize Shakespeare for the domestic French audiences of the latter 19th century. For purists it is sacrilege, but for opera-goers it is standard-you adjust.

Four love-duets punctuate the opera. Extra scenes, dances, and "a series of musical set-pieces" appear in places Shakespeare never imagined, yet they do not dominate the action. And since Gounod's reputation as "the musician of love" preceded him all over France, it is not surprising he showed amazing musical insight into this tragic and passionate story.

As for the quality of the production, EMI correctly chose Mr. Plasson as conductor to render a nearly flawless musical experience. The voices are never consumed by the orchestra (as they were in Wagner's later operas). They become one with it.

How do the young (but gifted) singers handle their parts? Romeo sounds edgily harsh in spots. Juliet has a few moments of emotional reticence. By no means are these perfect voices. But both singers make excellent actors, and whatever is lacking in polish and maturity is more than compensated by excitement, especially in the love-duets. This is among the most convincing versions of Romeo and Juliet now available.


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