“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” To Juliet’s words one might contest that some names carry a considerable weight, and not just those of the Montagues and Capulets. Perhaps in a less romantic sense, when the name of renowned tenor Juan Diego Flórez appears on playbills, audiences will hardly remain indifferent. The Peruvian singer led the cast in the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s new – and first ever – production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, as part of the concerts for the 84th edition of its summer festival. Joining him on stage as Juliette was soprano Valentina Naforniță, while conductor Henrik Nánási led from the podium and Frederic Wake-Walker was in charge of the staging.

Juan Diego Flórez (Roméo) and Valentina Naforniţă (Juliette)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Unlike Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, whose title alone suggests a clash between families rather than a love story, Gounod’s opera bypasses the public feud of Shakespeare’s play, choosing instead to focus on the private elements of the original text. The listener is presented with what’s essentially a five-act love duet – so much so that when the Duke of Verona makes his first and only appearance to banish Romeo, the effect is almost that of a jump scare.

Taking his cue from Gounod and his librettists, Wake-Walker didn’t hold back from presenting the sensuous side of the young lovers’ romance. The director made their attraction tangible by cutting the distance between them at any given moment, temporarily separating them just to have them reunite. Instead of wearing out, this shifting cat-and-mouse game succeeded in conveying the main characters’ youthful exuberance.

That being said, on the whole the staging proved ineffective and at times confusing. Several rows of white frames of different shapes occupied the stage and were variously arranged throughout the opera, as to suggest both indoor and outdoor spaces. While practical and possibly promising, the structures bore no apparent correlation to the background, a plain black surface on which were projected a few recurring images – a celestial body, an eye, a broken glass, a spider. Truth be told, these made for weak, unremarkable symbolism. The overall visual effect was hardly aided by Julia Katharina Berndt’s costumes, whose erratic fashions deepened the general mismatch, rather than attenuating it.

Roméo et Juliette
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Distracting from such heterogeneity was the corps de ballet, whose attire reminded me – a part-time indie rock enthusiast – of American songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’ signature outfit, a black skeleton onesie. Although the ballet occasionally seemed redundant, Anna Olkhovaya’s choreography was enjoyable.

As mentioned, Roméo et Juliette is hardly a piece of action-led, breakneck theatre. This is not to say it is drab or tedious; rather, its dramatic appeal resides in its capacity to hold the audience’s attention despite the lack of real emotional conflict. Regardless of obstacles, Roméo and Juliette’s love stays unwavering and prevails as the supreme emotion, the hatred between families paling and receding in comparison. On approaching the score, a conductor must bear in mind that it is Gounod’s Shakespeare they are dealing with, not Verdi’s. In this regard, Henrik Nánási steered clear of any overly abrasive inclination and gave a smooth, temperate rendition. Under his guidance the orchestra scarcely ventured up to the top end of the dynamic scale, favouring instead quiet or moderately quiet sounds. One can’t but commend the control that the conductor exerted over the score even within such a limited dynamic range, but despite clarity of sound and a steady pace, Nánási’s rendition didn’t really manage to be truly exhilarating.

Juan Diego Flórez (Roméo) and Valentina Naforniţă (Juliette)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Quite the opposite can be said of Flórez’s performance. Admittedly, it would be hard to think of a better Roméo. The tenor portrayed his character by the book: an impulsive young lover who is a reluctant victim, rather than a willing perpetrator, of the feud between families. This mixture of recklessness and melancholic passion transpired from Flórez’s masterfully chiselled phrasing, truly a lesson of character insight. His vocal confidence, reliant on a well-controlled range and astounding voice projection, rewarded him with a long burst of applause following the cavatina “Ah, lève-toi soleil”.

Naforniță’s Juliette was most convincing in the role’s exuberant moments. The soprano gave a delightful rendition of the opening aria “Je veux vivre”, matching the ebullience of the text with equal vivacity. A somewhat generic phrasing and occasional hollowness of tone didn’t hinder a valuable performance.

Among the rest of the cast Alessio Arduini sang a charismatic Mercutio, while much praise must be given to Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, whose all-too-brief appearance as the gender-bending Stéphano left the audience wishing the role was more conspicuous. Given the success of the evening, one can only hope that Gounod won’t remain a rara avis in Florentine theatres.

***11