Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette works surprisingly well in a concert performance for several reasons. First of all, we do not have to watch out-of-shape singers pretending to fight duels, or wobble the shaky scenery of Juliet’s balcony. More importantly, in placing the orchestra on the stage behind the soloists but in front of the chorus, Gounod’s orchestral scoring is revealed in all its detailed beauty. The main reason that an almost-full house of Madrid’s opera-goers (attired for a winter night in furs and the sharpest of suits) turned up for this performance was Roberto Alagna, who was singing the title role, but there were other excellent reasons to be there.

Michel Plasson, Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette) and Roberto Alagna (Roméo) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Michel Plasson, Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette) and Roberto Alagna (Roméo)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Michel Plasson is one of the few conductors who, on the podium, radiates authority, passion and communication without a whiff of ego or self-promotion. Instead, he worked with minute, careful gestures and mouthed (but silent) dialogue to guide the cast through the music’s complexities, while bringing the best out of the excellent orchestra of the Teatro Real. It was a pleasure (sitting with my nose practically against the stage) to see how humanely, humbly and well he led his force of performers.

The opening masked ball at the Capulets was dominated – as it should be – by Mercutio’s ballad, “Mab, la reine des mensonges”, sung by Joan Martín-Royo, a Catalan baritone to watch. Juliette’s “Je veux vivre” was sung by the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva with large volume, little finesse and a brassy, tarty manner that did not bring across Juliette’s youthful innocence at all. She was not helped by a frock in shocking-pink satin. On meeting Roméo, however, she softened and mellowed, and their first love-scene came off charmingly. Alagna, now 51, still has a trim physique (neatly encased on the night in well-tailored concert-style evening dress, rather than doublet and hose) and a full head of improbably orange hair, all of which helped the illusion that he was Juliette’s young lover, rather than her father or uncle. Vocally, the notes and the musicianship were there, but on a bare stage the occasional throat-clearings and scooped approaches to notes were hard to conceal. Even so, Alagna made an excellent job of competing with himself at half his present age – for a quarter of a century, a long time in singers’ years, he has dominated this great French tenor role, and his earlier recordings and performances set the benchmark which even he now has to struggle to meet.

In Act II, Alagna sang the testing, high-lying “Ah, lève-toi soleil!”, with its short, ecstatic phrases and its climax on a top B flat, without becoming breathless or strained. It was his best moment of the evening. Gertrude, Juliette’s nurse, was sung by Diana Montague, who mostly confines herself to Marcellina and Madam Larina these days, but she brought charm and colour (though little volume) to this small role.

The couple spoke their vows to Friar Laurent, persuasively sung by Roberto Tagliavini, a young Italian bass whose performance brought gravity beyond his years and vocal beauty which promises great things. The fight in Act III brought Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio and Paris to the fore, crossing swords as best they might without any weapons visible. The stocky, forceful Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, whose Basque name proclaims his Bilbao origins, brought drama and threat to Tybalt, and he managed his death (falling at the side of Plasson’s podium, and clinging to it for support) with commendable style. These moments can be the worst thing about concert performances, when the lights do not dim, and the wounded, the dying and the dead have to make their way offstage under their full glare.

Roberto Alagna (Roméo) and Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Roberto Alagna (Roméo) and Sonya Yoncheva (Juliette)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Juliette’s off-white nightdress, prominent in the final two acts, was even less flattering than her pink frock, but she gave a moving performance of the heroine forced first to contemplate a fake suicide and then to commit a real one. Beside her, Alagna managed the difficult pianissimos of the final scene with real beauty of tone, helped by Plasson’s masterly control of orchestral volume, which allowed Roméo’s faintest phrases to sing through.

The opera ended with the shortest death scene imaginable, both major principals leaping to their feet just after the final chords had faded away, to take well-deserved, rapturous applause from the Madrileños, who gave them a standing ovation.