Star Crossed Lovers
Warwick Thompson, The Guardian, 7 June 2002

Who better to sing in a film version of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette than
opera's most glamorous and controversial couple? Warwick Thompson joined
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna on set

Soprano Angela Gheorghiu is standing in front of mossy stone walls in a
dazzling kingfisher-blue robe. Her long black hair trails down her back.
Her husband, the tenor Roberto Alagna, is beside her in a jacket and
breeches of the same mesmerising blue. On one side of them, lush
Bohemian forests swoop down to the Vltava River. On the other, the
haphazard turrets of 13th-century Zvikov Castle rise up in irregular
abundance. A piercing electronic beep cuts the air - the signal for a
playback machine to start work - and the unlikely sound of a
full-throated 19th-century love-duet fills the garden. The world's
favourite opera stars begin to lip-synch, whispering the sounds but
acting their roles with full intensity. The camera circles round them

The opera in question is Gounod's luscious Roméo et Juliette (1867) and
the scene being shot is Ange adorable, the first of four spectacular
duets that punctuate the work. The piece has fallen out of the
repertoire in recent years, for various reasons. One is that the opera
is very much a star soprano-tenor vehicle, and does not offer very much
of note to the other performers; another is that there are few tenors
who have the stamina and lyrical capabilities necessary for the role of
Roméo; yet another is that Gounod's syrupy melodies aren't to everyone's
taste (Turgenev memorably accused the composer of having "the ooze of
the erotic priest"). But when Gheorghiu and Alagna decided to start
singing it, opera houses suddenly decided it was time to dust off their
old productions.

The film has been produced by Christ Hunt (executive director of
arts-oriented film company Iambic Productions) with a significant chunk
of funding from Channel 4, and was shot last July under the guidance of
director Barbara Willis Sweete. Hunt approached Gheorghiu and Alagna
after he saw them perform Roméo et Juliette at Covent Garden in 2000.
"If they are remembered for anything as a pair, it ought to be for these
roles - they are lovers, after all," he says. "They were keen, but told
me they didn't have a gap in their schedules for four years. I said,
'But Roméo and Juliette are supposed to be young!' and that clinched it.
They found the time."

It is not hard to see why he wanted them. The Gheorghiu/Alagna pairing
(or Bob'n'Ange, as they are known unofficially at their record company,
is one of the hottest properties in opera, and to hire them together
costs more than the sum of their usual individual fees. But they are
known as much for the controversy that surrounds them as for their
recordings and stage appearances. Director Jonathan Miller has dubbed
them "Bonnie and Clyde", and the Romanian Gheorghiu was called "la
petite Draculette" after some fiery behaviour at the Bastille Opera in
Paris. The latest flare-up occurred only a month ago when Gheorghiu's
manager claimed he had fired her, citing the diva's temper as one of the
main reasons. When I ask Gheorghiu about this incident her answer is
remarkably sanguine. "No, no, no - I sacked him. I sent him a fax
telling him this. He was unhappy, and - how shall I say? - he had a
reaction all by himself. He had a monologue. What happened, happened -
but in any case, we remain friends because he is still working with
Roberto. He overreacted, that's all." Alagna is pragmatic about their
bad press. "We don't read it. We only hear about it when people mention
it to us in interviews," he says. "But it helps to sell CDs."

In order to bring it in at the required length, the director does to
Gounod what the composer did to Shakespeare - that is, cut the source
material without mercy. She slashes three and a half hours of opera into
75-minutes of film. She keeps the four lynchpin duets and shortened
versions of the more important solo arias for the central lovers, but
reduces most of the other characters to a few lines of recitative. The
result is occasionally too concise for comfort. Juliette has to forgive
Roméo for murdering Tybalt so quickly that it is nearly indecent, for
example, and Roméo's banishment - an important spring of the plot - is
not announced but has to be inferred. "All the cuts were decided
together, with me, Roberto and Barbara, before we began filming," says
Gheorghiu, some months after the shoot. "We had to keep it short for
television, but we wanted to be true to the story."

Alagna defends the director's decisions. I confess to him that I find
the opening confusing, and wonder why (as the overture plays) the whole
cast is shown walking slowly to the Capulets' castle for the ball.
Surely Juliette and her father already live there? "It's just an
introductory presentation of the characters," says Alagna. "In Barbara's
mind, these people are attracted by the castle, by destiny. It's like
Cocteau; it seems a simple image, but you have the sense that something
strange will happen. I think it's beautiful."

Seeing Gheorghiu and Alagna on location, it was clear that they had been
bitten by the movie bug. Despite a few professional squabbles, the
director says she would love to work with them again. It is more than
likely that she will get the chance; the couple now have seven other
opera film projects in the pipeline. Alagna even hopes that that they
may get to make a non-singing film. "I have dreamed all my life of being
in the movies," he sighs. "To be on the big screen, to see our work
there - it is something very moving."


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