The surprises of last season’s performances of Massenet’s Manon were the scenes between tenor Vittorio Grigòlo and soprano Diana Damrau. Almost overcoming Laurent Pelly’s ugly impressionist take on the opera, the pair lit up – and heated up – the stage with remarkable singing and hot, hot chemistry. They’ve returned this season in a new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (first seen in Salzburg in 2008 and then in Milan in 2011) and they repeated and cemented their intense on-stage relationship – these were characters the audience believed. They listened to each other, they reacted in real time, they sang with feeling and spontaneity in their four love duets. Of course the opera itself remains a somewhat gooey concoction that relies more on pretty tunes – some of them extraordinarily pretty – rather than emotional depth, but performed properly, it can be a very effective night at the opera.

Vittorio Grigòlo (Roméo) and Elliot Madore (Mercutio) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Vittorio Grigòlo (Roméo) and Elliot Madore (Mercutio)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Bartlett Sher has updated the plot to the 18th century – it’s hard to tell precisely why – and Michael Yeargan’s unit set, three tiers of arcaded stone around an all-purpose courtyard with a street or two leading off it is a bit dreary and looming. But a manic masquerade, lots of movement and, in the second half of the opera, a rather surreal, gigantic white sheet that floats about, sometimes as a canopy, sometimes as bed-linen, sometimes a bridal veil keeps the stage alive. Large props are lowered from the flies to create indoor places and situations and Catherine Zuber’s extravagant costumes are stunning. There’s nothing really new here, which is just fine. Sher stays out of the opera’s rather direct way, concentrating on the plot – the families hate each other, the lovers love each other. Breaking the opera into only two acts proved strange – the first act ended with the couple’s wedding, rather a mellow curtain. The all-deciding fight scene outside the Capulet’s palace followed after a 35 minute interval, but it was worth waiting for: fight director BH Barry was more responsible for excitement than was Mr Sher.

Mikhail Petrenko (Frère Laurent) and Diana Damrau (Juliette) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Mikhail Petrenko (Frère Laurent) and Diana Damrau (Juliette)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

One can therefore concentrate on the singing. Cast from strength, baritone Elliot Madore offered a properly boastful Mercutio; Laurent Naouri’s Capulet went from merry and energetic to filled with sorrow, all with dark, ringing tone; David Crawford presented a Paris who did not deserve Juliette. Virginie Verrez sang well as Stéphano and Mikhail Petrenko’s Frère Laurent was both gentle and ominous.

But all eyes and ears were on the lovers. Vittorio Grigòlo, whose impetuosity and boyishness have been known to detract from performances, was here ideal: youthful, playful, loving, rueful and eventually tragic, he sounded as fine as he looked. Bounding from one end of the stage to the other with grace and energy and singing like a superstar, Mr Grigòlo was not all high octane – from a ravishing “Ah, lève-toi soleil” through a remarkably subdued and elegant Balcony Scene, he kept his enthusiasm in check and delivered exquisite, sensitive singing and partnering. And he capped off the third act duel scene with a ringing high C against the full orchestra and chorus that drove the audience wild. Fine Italian/French tenorizing at its best.

Diana Damrau (Juliette) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Roméo) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Diana Damrau (Juliette) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Roméo)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Diana Damrau’s sound and style are not much like Mr Grigòlo’s. The voice is not juicy or warm, but she is an artist who uses her gifts wisely and well: she floats onto the stage and becomes Juliette (she is 30 years older than the character), all innocence and in a flurry, and dispatches her coloratura showpiece “Je veux vivre” with ease and panache. As the opera goes on and her girlishness turns to trepidation and then tragedy, Ms Damrau adds weight to her tone, and her Poison aria, probably the role’s heaviest moment, had great gravitas. She and Mr Grigòlo phrase the same way, buoy one-another up, and are of one mind. It proved a very special type of music-making.

Gianandrea Noseda led the Met Chorus and Orchestra efficiently and underlined the opera’s dozens of obvious points with expertise. And if the evening seemed more like a night at an Italian opera than a French one, there were no complaints.