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Roméo et Juliette, New York Metropolitan Opera, September 2007
Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna, New York 2007

          Netrebko and Alagna Triumph in Met Opera, Associated Press, 26 September 2007
          The Lovers of Verona, Swaggering and Soaring, The New York Times, 27 September 2007
          The Night of Netrebko, The New York Sun, 27 September 2007
          Juliette and Her First Romeo Open at the Met, Musical America, 27 September 27 2007

Netrebko and Alagna Triumph in Met Opera
Mike Silverman, Associated Press, 26 September 2007

A case of the dueling divas seems to be settling over the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House  and the only sure winner is the audience.

On Tuesday, one night after French soprano Natalie Dessay created a sensation opening the season in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," the spotlight fell on her Russian counterpart, Anna Netrebko, in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette."

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, Netrebko was reprising a role that Dessay had sung at the Met two seasons ago when the production was first introduced. More intriguing still, Netrebko is tentatively slated to take over the role of Lucia next year and also to star in Massenet's "Manon"  the latter a role Dessay has recently added to her repertoire.

When singers are at as high a level as these two, comparisons can only be flattering. Netrebko gave a striking performance as the ill-fated daughter of the Capulets, sparkling on her high notes in the Waltz Song, blending smoothly in her duets with Romeo (tenor Roberto Alagna) and rising to great heights of dramatic expressiveness in the aria "Amour, ranime mon courage," when she takes the sleeping potion that is supposed to allow her to escape with her beloved.

She may not summon up the image of an innocent teenager as effortlessly as Dessay did in the opening act, but she and Alagna make as sexy a pair of young lovers as one could ever hope to see in the bedroom scene. (And yes, the floating bed that most distinguishes this production by Guy Joosten is still on display.)

Moreover, her sturdy lyric sound, tinged with that slight melancholy characteristic of Russian singers, is arguably better suited than Dessay's more fragile tone to fill out Gounod's lush melodic lines.

And what of Alagna, making his first Met appearance since his notorious walkout at La Scala last December after being booed for his opening aria in Verdi's "Aida"? The French-Sicilian tenor has always seemed most at home in the French repertory, and his Romeo was no exception. He has definitely lost some of the ease in the upper register that he displayed when he sang the role here a decade ago, but his singing was ardent and ultimately winning.

Alagna is singing only one more performance of the role, this Saturday, before switching over to Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Originally, tenor Rolando Villazon was to be Netrebko's partner for the entire run, but he has canceled all appearances through the remainder of the year. Joseph Kaiser and Matthew Polenzani will sing later Romeos.

Repeating from two years ago, baritone Stephane Degout (subbing for an indisposed Nathan Gunn) was a dashing Mercutio, and bass Kristin Sigmundsson brought gravitas to the role of Friar Laurence. In the brief "trousers" role of Stephano, debuting mezzo Isabel Leonard showed she's a spirited performer well worth keeping an eye on.

Placido Domingo, who in his younger days sang Romeo at the Met himself, conducted the orchestra, showing a nice feel especially for the many tender moments of the score.

The Lovers of Verona, Swaggering and Soaring
Anne Midgette, The New York Times, 27 September 2007

After the buildup to the opening night of the season, you can expect a certain falloff. But the second night of the Metropolitan Opera's season on Tuesday was terrific.

Guy Joosten's production of Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette" glows with bright blues, the warm tones of inlaid wood and backgrounds of spiraling colored galaxies and stars. When the production opened in November 2005, I found it saccharine. But on Tuesday its jewel-like colors and jewel-box compartments were an appropriate setting for an opera that revealed one vocal jewel after another.

You are not going to hear much better singing than this today. True, Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna can both be faulted. She is a little wild, flinging herself into roles and about the stage (especially, on Tuesday, at her first entrance); he has a certain emotional bluntness, and a certain monochrome tone. So much for the obligatory criticism. The bottom line is that Ms. Netrebko produced a luscious sound that you wanted to bathe in forever, especially in her first-act duet with Mr. Alagna. The ultimate measure for a singer should be, Is this a sound you want to listen to? The answer here was yes.

Mr. Alagna was less purely luxurious, but certainly no slouch. His approach involves pumping out sound, but there was some pretty nice sound pumped out, especially in his aria "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" At its best, his voice is ringing, ardent, firm; at its worst, a little tight, with a tendency to swoop upward to find the higher pitches. But he more than met the criterion mentioned above.

Wisely, the producers dispensed with the purple tights poor Ramón Vargas had to wear when this production opened; in lieu of these, Mr. Alagna got some powder-blue pants and matching boots that made it appear as if medieval Verona were receiving a visit from Johnny Cash.

The delight did not stop at the two principals. Stéphane Degout was an adroit, limber Mercutio. Kristinn Sigmundsson was strong, warm and easy as Friar Laurence. And making her company debut with remarkable aplomb as Stéphano was Isabel Leonard, a young Juilliard graduate who sang with the assurance of one who feels completely at home on the stage, wielding an easy mezzo that went up from an amber-colored lower register to an impressive, sopranolike top. It is hard to make a splash in a pants role in a long opera on a night when Anna Netrebko is singing, but Ms. Leonard did.

The other, less exciting singers included Marc Heller (Tybalt), David Won (Grégorio), Louis Otey (Paris) and John Hancock as a rather raspy Capulet.

Plácido Domingo's presence in the pit added extra luster to the evening, if not always to the music. He was earnest and careful, but he sounded a little out of his depth, from the muddy fugue that dragged down the overture.

And if the singers, including Ms. Netrebko, flagged a bit by the end, no matter. It was not a night to cavil. It was a night to enjoy.

The Night of Netrebko
Jay Nordlinger, The New York Sun, 27 September 2007

Tuesday night was Anna Netrebko Night at the Metropolitan Opera, as the starry Russian soprano sang the title role of Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette"  one of the title roles, anyway. Of necessity, there was a Roméo.

Ms. Netrebko was not problem-free, and we'll address her problems first: She has a tendency to Russify everything she sings. On Tuesday night, her French sometimes sounded Russian, and so did her singing. Was this Juliette or Tatiana? Also, she sharped, as she has a habit of doing. And, once or twice, she all but bellowed, up top.

Furthermore, her "Je veux vivre"  the aria also known as "Juliet's Waltz"  was mediocre. It was far less saucy, lilting, and endearing than it can be. And far less refined.

But enough of the negative stuff: In general, Ms. Netrebko sang fabulously well, oozing charm, oozing charisma, and oozing vocal excellence. In Acts IV and V, she was close to faultless, singing with almost no encumbrance whatsoever. She was as good in her quiet moments as in her soaring ones. And her French could be quite beautiful: as in "Adieu mille fois."

And how did she look, this worldwide pin-up? Not too shabby. Anytime Anna Netrebko is on a balcony, a boy will look up.

The boy looking up on Tuesday night was Roberto Alagna, the Italian-French tenor. (He was born in Paris to Sicilian parents.) His Roméo is a rightly admired one, but he, too, had problems: There was more bleat in his tenor than I had ever heard before. And he sometimes used too much force, sounding now and then a bit shouty. The aria "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" need not be that heroic (let's say). It can be more lyrical, more sinuous, more French.

Worse, he scooped up into notes, all evening long. That is, he approached them from the south, sliding into them. A little of this is perfectly acceptable, and, indeed, traditional. But Mr. Alagna abused the privilege. His first note of "Nuit d'hyménée" sounded like the clarinet glissando that begins "Rhapsody in Blue."

Otherwise, he sang with considerable freedom, beauty, and élan. The world is not long on tenors at the moment, and this is a good one  actually, an underrated, and too frequently picked on, one. Also, Mr. Alagna seemed aptly youthful. At one point, he leapt  and I mean leapt  into bed with Juliette. The bass from Iceland, Kristinn Sigmundsson, reprised the role of Friar Laurence. He had sung it when this production  by Guy Joosten  debuted two seasons ago. Again, he was powerful, authoritative, and musical. And, once more, the Mercutio was Stéphane Debout, the French baritone. He was notably suave and assured. Tybalt was Marc Heller, who was pretty suave and assured himself. This tenor sang both creamily and incisively  and he was particularly good in death.

Coming back as the Nurse was the mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell. She was very solid, as always. It would be nice to hear her in larger, non-Nursey roles. Paris was the baritone Louis Otey, who sang stoutly. Capulet was another baritone, John Hancock (no word on his signature). He sang emphatically, sometimes beautifully. It was hard to hear him in the lower register. David Won made a fine Grégorio, Tony Stevenson filled the bill as Benvolio, and Dean Patterson, as the Duke of Verona, both looked and sounded dukely. The Met chorus, I'm happy to say, outdid itself. To cite only one example, its hushed, almost prayerful singing in the Prologue was superb.

In 2005, the mezzo Joyce DiDonato came on in the little role of Stéphano and lit up the Met stage like a Christmas tree. Singing Stéphano on this occasion was young Isabel Leonard, making her Met debut. She raised eyebrows with the New York Philharmonic last season. And, on Tuesday night, she was full of confidence and spunk. When the crowd roared for her at the end, she seemed genuinely touched, maybe a little surprised.

Leading the opera in the pit was a first-class Roméo himself, Plácido Domingo, the tenor-conductor. (He also plays the piano.) The prelude to "R&J" told the tale of Mr. Domingo's conducting: The fugal portion was not quite together; but a romantic heart was in evidence. Throughout the opera, Mr. Domingo would have problems with coordination (though these diminished as the evening wore on). But he conducted with tender loving care  emotional care. And that counts for a lot.

The strings, I should say, were warm  very warm  just as Gounod demands.

And it was a pleasure to see Mr. Joostens's production again: with itsstarsandplanets, throughatelescope. (The lovers are star-crossed, get it?) When the production debuted, they had a problem with the floating bed  it malfunctioned. This week, however, smooth sailing.

I ask you: Will artists ever tire of "Romeo and Juliet"? Will humanity? Almost certainly not. Gounod wrote a keen and underrated opera, and Prokofiev wrote an even better ballet. Of course, Shakespeare's play isn't bad either.

Juliette and Her First Romeo Open at the Met
Peter G. Davis, Musical America, 27 September 27 2007

There's no sign that Peter Gelb's "new" Metropolitan Opera is running low on showbiz energy. The second evening of the new season (Sept. 25) matched the first in sheer star power and musical panache, even if the high-powered glitz that accompanied opening night's performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor" had been turned down to a slow simmer.

Originally, this revival of Gounod's sweet-scented "Roméo et Juliette" was to feature opera's favorite love couple du jour (strictly an onstage affair, as far as anyone knows): Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Sadly, Villazón has fallen afoul of a mysterious indisposition that will apparently lay him low for the foreseeable future, but the Met has called upon a formidable line-up of backups to fill in, with Roberto Alagna first at bat. To insure that audiences wouldn't feel short-changed in the tenor department, Plácido Domingo is on hand in the pit to preside over an opera he knows well as both a singer and a conductor.

As far as presenting a perfect picture of youthful love and beauty, Netrebko and Alagna can hardly be bettered in today's telegenic world of opera, where pretty faces and figures can sometimes seem more important than vocal charisma. Neither is a teenager, of course, but both look young, fragile and cute as buttons (at least from a distance), and they move over the stage with youthful agility in a production that calls for more athletic activity than most stagings of Gounod's elegant operatic setting of Shakespeare's tale.

One notices this immediately in Act 1, when Juliette bounces onstage to sing her lacy waltz song, not as the usual stand-and-deliver coloratura showpiece, but as an innocent make-believe presentiment of what will actually soon happen to these youngsters as they flirt, frolic, banter and poke each other with their hand masks. Perhaps the biggest success of the production, and evidence of how effectively the two stars play their roles, is how this couple gradually matures and accepts adult responsibilities over the course of their four love duets. By the time Netrebko and Alagna reach the tomb they will share for eternity, both singers have put light comedy far behind them and expire with a complete command of Shakespearean poignancy and pathos.

There was also much to enjoy in their singing, although connoisseurs of these roles will inevitably have nits to pick. Netrebko has rapidly expanded her repertory over the past few years, perhaps too quickly to digest all their vocal implications. Her Juliette makes lovely sounds to be sure, but all too often the notes seem generalized and disconnected as if her musical concentration has only been partially engaged. Alagna's tenor on the other hand is gradually thickening and losing its attractive spin; he honestly aims for dynamic variety and tonal shading, but that costs him an effort now and his singing no longer has much grace. The last time Domingo conducted this opera at the Met, his Roméo was the late Alfredo Kraus, and the conductor (a distinguished singer of the role himself) graciously blew an admiring kiss to the tenor after an incomparable rendition of Roméo's Act 2 aria; for Alagna, Domingo simply looked down at the score and waited.

There's not much for the other singers in this two-role opera, but Stéphane Degout made a charmingly airy moment out of Mercutio's Queen Mab aria; Isabel Leonard, in her Met debut, tossed off the page Stéphano's little ditty with sparkle and Kristinn Sigmundsen was a properly upright and uptight Friar Laurence. Domingo gave his singers every consideration, although orchestra ensemble could have been tighter.

Guy Jossten's direction and Johannes Leiacker's sets return basically unchanged, a Renaissance atmosphere dominated by paneled woodcarvings on the walls and an oval panorama at the rear that opens and closes to reveal various astrological images -- Friar Laurence, who seems to have a drinking problem, is even armed with a telescope. None of this is especially offensive, but conjuring up an arts-and-science flavor was of no concern to Gounod or his librettists, and here the idea adds little to the opera. Nor does the elaborate bed that Roméo and Juliette use to make love in Act 4, dangerously suspended in midair amid the stars. It's a major distraction and mainly makes one fear for the singers.