The distinction of season première tonight belonged to Bartlett Sher’s production of Roméo et Juliette. Apart from his once symbolic prop, the oversize sheet, which by any other name, will have its uses – canopy, shroud, bed sheet, faux wedding dress, and shroud again, Sher’s primary choice is to shift the action from the Renaissance to 18th-century Verona, a world of decadent masked balls, court mantuas, Gainsborough hats and neoclassical architecture. That which separates the two eras is important: the end of ancien régime boasts a less innocent flamboyance, a certain over-ripe decadence. The Montagues and Capulets party, fight (and romance) on the edge of a volcano, as it were.

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Andrea Shin (Roméo) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Andrea Shin (Roméo)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The key figure here is Capulet himself, less the powerful patriarch of Shakespeare’s play, and more the pleasure-loving buffoon whose very lack of responsibility and weak-willed inanity – the suggestion is – have created the breakdown in law and order among the younger hot-blooded members of both feuding tribes. Laurent Naouri was an unusually appealing magnet in every scene he was in, effetely attired in red velvet and ornate heels with bows. His very role in bringing on the tragedy is a kind of hapless one: it is not so much the impress of a patriarch’s will but the fulfillment of his promise to the dying Tybalt which pressures him into enforcing the bad marriage between his daughter and Paris. The ending of his dynastic line, in short, is caused by a silly gentleman’s agreement.

Laurent Naouri (Capulet) and Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Laurent Naouri (Capulet) and Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

This opera, which is a conventional enough example of the French Romantic canon, must rest, however, on the principals; its four cornerstones are their duets, representing, in the compact order of Gounod’s storytelling, romance, wedding, bedding and death. What soloists are not under the particular scrutiny consequent on such extraordinary literary fame? How do they match up to the archetypes of the star-crossed lovers we long to see? Andrea Shin stood in (nobly) for Charles Castronovo who himself would have been a stand in for Bryan Hymel as Roméo, and deserves particular credit for making his unexpected Met debut with great conviction and passion. Perhaps because of the last minute change, the chemistry between him and Ailyn Pérez's Juliette was not such as to overwhelm one with a sense of transcendental passion.

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

This may have been Shin’s excess of melancholia, which did not provide a sufficiently strong contrast between the eager boyish romancing of the first act and the tragic ironies of the last. Shin was never not hounded by the fates; nor, for a lover, did he gaze at his inamorata long or longingly enough. Indeed, dressed in black throughout, he was as Hamlet-esque a Romeo as I’ve ever seen – the agony of his desire was entirely cerebral, wholly unmediated by sensual appetite. For all that, his tenor voice was liberal, marrying the orchestra in its tones, and dominating when occasion required. Ailyn Pérez's emotional range was wider; whilst not the most girlish of presences, her coloratura was fresh in her celebrated valse-ariette “Je veux vivre” and the maturity of voice and expression patent in the disarray of feeling as she first hesitates and then unflinchingly drinks the ‘sleeping’ potion. 

Love between the two became more plausible the less likely it was they would survive, and most plausible in death, framed in the libretto as a mutual act (unlike Shakespeare, Gounod cannot resist bringing them together alive and singing for one last time – even if it gives rise to the rather terrible melodramatic line, redolent of the 19th-century at its most obvious:  “Alas, thinking you were dead, I drank poison”.) Juliet’s insistence that Romeo guide her hand as she knives her bosom makes the act a strikingly decisive one.

Kwangchul Youn (Frère Laurent) and Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Kwangchul Youn (Frère Laurent) and Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Mercutio (Joshua Hopkins) was good fun, making up for Shin’s solidity, tossing off his Queen Mab ballad with devil-may-care nonchalance. Frère Laurent (Kwangchul Youn) had the ballast of voice required for one in charge of the souls of impetuous youth. Choruses are somewhat static in this opera, but the mourning scene over Tybalt’s death was moving. The orchestra under baton of Plácido Domingo caught the poetry and pathos of the score.

An enjoyable evening if not a trascendent one – some very elegant singing, committed if not always dazzling acting, and a production that left me with a whole range of new questions about Capulet. Who knew?