It hasn’t often happened that I go into an opera house to see a work I regard as flawed and come out feeling like I’ve seen a great work. But that’s what Stephen Barlow’s production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette achieved at Estonian National Opera. Of course, the Paris audience of 1867 was in no doubt that Roméo et Juliette was, if not a masterpiece, certainly a smash hit. It was an era of optimism, the height of lavish Second Empire opulence before the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, and what was wanted was lavish entertainment. Gounod delivered just the ticket: glitz, lush orchestration and a string of delicious melodies wrapped around a well loved romantic story. If the drama wasn’t the tightest and the libretto a butchery of Shakespeare, audiences didn't care.

Act 1: The Capulets' Ball
© Estonian National Opera | Veljo Poom

From the start, Barlow’s production makes the most of Roméo et Juliette’s strengths and mitigates the weaknesses. The overture is handled cleverly and innovatively: dumb shows and silent movie-style text panels follow the way the overture predicts the main themes of the opera, with the lovers’ deaths followed by a “Three days earlier...” panel which launches into the Capulets’ ritzy birthday party for Juliet. We are clearly in the realm of a present-day mafioso family, smartly dressed guests sipping champagne under political banners declaring “Oui!”; the Montagues are low-lifes spraying “Non!” graffiti and gate-crashing the party by disguising themselves as the catering staff. Yannis Thavoris’ designs are straightforward and effective: a glittering function room, sparing use of a revolve to show the Capulets’ garden and Juliet’s bedroom and balcony, turning to reveal Friar Laurence’s cell or the family vault. These are the kinds of people and settings we know or have seen in the movies. The cast all act their parts convincingly. In short, we believe, even in the improbable plot twists.

Kristel Pärtna (Juliette)
© Veljo Poom

The other reason we believe is that the cast are completely committed to the text they are singing. Almost without exception, their French diction is clear and everyone inflects their singing with meaning. They give us plenty of lilt and sparkle, drive the drama forward at every point and achieve some moments of greatness. Kristel Pärtna was nothing short of spellbinding in her ending of Act 4, when Juliet is torn between the possibility of wedded bliss from Friar Laurence’s plan and the absolute terror of waking up alone in a cold grave. Eric Fennell’s “O nuit divine”, Romeo’s Act 2 soliloquy after Juliet has declared her love, was deliriously blissful. Helen Lokuta was a brilliantly spunky Stéphano, taunting the Capulets in Act 3. René Soom and Heldur Harry Põlda were convincingly loutish and antagonistic as Mercutio and Tybalt. Märt Jakobson gave us a cultured bass voice as Friar Laurence. 

Märt Jakobson (Frère Laurent)
© Estonian National Opera | Veljo Poom

The Estonian National Opera’s Chorus were unusually intelligible and, in spite of not being in particularly large numbers, played a full part in moving the action along. Things were helped by judicious cuts – some 20 minutes worth – in an opera whose dramatic thrust can often drag. Under the baton of Vello Pähn, the orchestra gave a full-throated, enthusiastic rendering of Gounod’s opulent score – occasionally overpowering but never dull. These aren’t international superstars and you don’t come here expecting to hear memorable voices at the level of Roberto Alagna or Angela Gheorghiu. But collectively, they delivered a thoroughly entertaining evening of opera.

René Soom (Mercutio)
© Estonian National Opera | Veljo Poom

David's trip to Tallinn was funded by Visit Estonia