Two huge fight scenes in Opera Hong Kong’s production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in this year’s “Le French May” cultural festival left a deep impression on me. A great deal of effort clearly went into mobilising some fifty young men and women in rapid action pushing and shoving, running each other down with rapiers and daggers. Expertly choreographed and executed, they could not make up for a production marred by a confused artistic vision and gratuitous and distracting oddities.

Sébastien Guèze (Roméo) and Vannina Santoni (Juliette) © Opera Hong Kong
Sébastien Guèze (Roméo) and Vannina Santoni (Juliette)
© Opera Hong Kong
I am generally averse to modernised versions of period dramas, mainly because they are often incoherent and inconsistent in the details. Examples of inconsistency abounded in Roméo et Juliette. The masked ball at the beginning of the opera had the cast wearing contextually inappropriate Guy Fawkes, or more recently Vendetta, masks. The story is not about uprising against the authorities, but rather a private feud between two clans. The feuding gangs attacked each other with rapiers and daggers, yet the Duke’s guards carried rifles.

It’s hard to put one’s finger onto which period the production had been modernised. The Capulets wore light greyish blue cotton hoodies and the Montagues were in brown leather jackets – I couldn’t helping thinking they were the Hell’s Angels and the Night Wolves in Russia. Yet Frère Laurent wore a thick hessian gown typical of an ascetic monk. Even if we accept his garb has remained unchanged through the ages, the quill pen he used was clearly anachronistic.

Several other production choices were rather irritating. Roméo and Juliette popping cans of beer or fizzy drinks at the end of the balcony scene, for example, drew some sniggers. To occupy himself in his cell, Frère Laurent paced across the room to peer through what looked like a telescope. Was he an amateur astronomer? As Juliette dressed for her wedding to Count Paris on her father’s orders, a giant book was brought to her with the words “The Bible” written on it – at least I could see them fifteen rows into the auditorium. As Juliette lay unconscious under the influence of the potion, the raging Count Capulet brought down a huge cross leaning against one of the walls. My heart was in my mouth as it crashed close to her. The table on which her “body” was placed under a white sheet made the place look more like a public mortuary than a crypt.

<i>Roméo et Juliette</i> in Hong Kong © Opera Hong Kong
Roméo et Juliette in Hong Kong
© Opera Hong Kong

Sébastien Guèze was well cast as Roméo. His slender voice was youthful and impulsive, hitting the high notes with ease. Vannina Santoni, as Juliette, sounded more like a dramatic rather than lyric soprano. She practically jumbled the coloratura in her “Je veux vivre” (I want to live) waltz in Act I. Among the four duets featuring the two lovers, “Nuit d’hyménée!” (O bridal night) at the beginning of Act IV was the best, and my favourite, with both emotionally engaged and in tandem. Ms Santoni often strained to get to the high notes and exerted herself a little too much.

Sébastien Guèze (Roméo) and Vannina Santoni (Juliette) © Opera Hong Kong
Sébastien Guèze (Roméo) and Vannina Santoni (Juliette)
© Opera Hong Kong
Carol Lin put in a vivacious performance in the trouser role of Roméo’s page Stéphano, prancing around the stage and taunting the Capulets. The basses, Gong Dong Jian as Frère Laurent and Guy Bonfiglio as Capulet were well suited to their respective roles. Gong was serious and earnest, while Bonfiglio was more excitable and emotionally charged. The well harmonised chorus provided a strong undercurrent of darkness to the tale.

The Fujian Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Benjamin Pionnier, took more of a back seat than usual. At times not fully synchronised with the action on stage, it struggled to be heard in the hurly-burly fight scene at the opening. The cellos in the most lyrical theme in the opera – the prelude to the “Nuit d’hyménée!” duet – were in disarray.

The set consisted mostly of dark grey and gloomy castle walls stretching high into the proscenium, with mobile platforms; for example, Frère Laurent’s cell was moved into the centre as needed. It was functional, but unexciting.

The gigantic effort that must have gone into the production did not translate into an outstanding artistic outcome. It probably drew its inspiration from West Side Story, but looked very much like a wannabe.