Gounod - Roméo et Juliette

La Monnaie at Bozar, Brussels, Sunday March 24 2013

Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Juliette: Nino Machaidze. Stéphano: Angélique Noldus. Gertrude: Carole Wilson. Roméo: John Osborn. Tybalt: Tansel Akzeybek. Benvolio: Stefan Cifolelli. Mercutio: Lionel Lhote. Le Comte Pâris: Alexandre Duhamel. Grégorio: Nabil Suliman. Le Comte Capulet: Paul Gay. Frère Laurent: Jérôme Varnier. Le Duc de Vérone: Patrick Bolleire. Manuela: Amalia Avilán. Pepita: Kinga Borowska. Angelo: Marc Coulon. Frère Jean: Pascal Macou. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie. Vlaams Radio Koor. Reflection.

Concert performance

There’s a certain kind of opera classed in my mind alongside Massenet’s Esclarmonde. Works, that is, that need top-rate performances to, well, work. Joan Sutherland’s famous recording of Esclarmonde does; an Esclarmonde put on by the local amateur operatic society on a shoestring budget probably wouldn’t. At the Opéra Comique some years back, it was decidedly unconvincing. The risk, with a superlative recording, is that the piece is resuscitated only to be killed for good as far as subsequent performances are concerned, so high a standard is set. Live, you get the result without the risk.

In any case, Roméo et Juliette is a much better opera than Mireille, with only a relatively short yawn-inducing passage during the wedding and Stéphano’s aria; and more coherent by far, musically and dramatically, than Faust. The programme notes went so far as to declare it was Gounod’s master work. Anyway, La Monnaie’s occasional concert performances are traditionally excellent. So we had a good afternoon.

Many of the singers were already familiar. The star of the show, however, wasn’t, except by name. Back home in the evening, I asked a noted soprano to comment on a YouTube clip of Nino Machaidze singing the famous waltz:

Soprano: “I don't like her ‘eu’ vowel (too much ‘ee’ in it, just a personal taste thing), but her voice is gorgeous, the lines are clean, she doesn't clip off the short notes too short like most people do in this aria, top notes are connected to the rest of her voice, she's beautiful and elegant onstage and the dress is fab... what's not to like? I'd ‘brava’ this. What did you think?”

Me: “Her diction is Sutherlandish and her [French] pronunciation is idiosyncratic.”

(Her “e” sounds tended towards the “a”.)

Me (continued): “Well, YouTube strips out all the harmonics. I'd say she has more than diction in common with Sutherland. She has a deal of power, her voice is agile, and her timbre has that combination of dark undertones and a definitely edgy top. Don't know, though, if she has the stratosphere Sutherland had; and I wonder if she will look after her voice enough to preserve it - it sounds to me the kind of voice that could go out of control if not taken care of. […] Belgians don't 'brava' but they did cheer, which is fairly unusual, and a few stood when she took bows at the end.”

Standing is very rare in Brussels. Then, this being Facebook and open to all comers, in chipped a Dutch opera expert:

Dutch Expert: “Well.....I would buy a disk from her...”

So, full marks to Nino Machaidze. Though it did strike me that, with her black hair pulled back tightly into in a pony tail, platform shoes, deep cleavage and jewels, in looks she was more Bond Girl than teenage ingénue. You could imagine her with a harpoon in hand, emerging from the sea…

John Osborn is a remarkable high tenor of the kind needed in these French works, one I’ve noticed before – in Lucia: “... gave us a very decent top D (again assuming I got the key right; in any case, an unexpectedly high note) and was all round an impeccable Donizetti-weight tenor (not for huge places like the Met or Bastille)”; and in La Juive: “John Osborn should have got far more cheers. He had all the notes, which is saying something”. He didn’t, though, look any more innocent than Juliet. With his long hair brushed back almost like a “mullet”, he had a touch of the Gypsy Kings about him. But I suppose in a concert performance singers do as they please.

Paul Gay’s fairly bright, open timbre was better employed in Gounod than in Puccini (less stretched, so less inclined to bluster) but he was not fully in control of his top notes. Perhaps the altogether unseasonal six inches of snow and biting winds outside had something to do with that. Lionel Lhote, whom I’ve remarked on a couple of times in the past as a reliable Brussels regular, had the afternoon’s best diction and did a very fleet, subtle job of his feathery Queen Mab aria. I was pleased, too, to hear Tansel Akzeybek again, this time as Tybalt, having noticed him in Rossini’s Otello, also in concert: “Nice detail for an Otello: the Doge and offstage gondolier were sung (very well, by the way) by a Turk”. His French diction was also better than most.

The rest of the cast (some with next to nothing to sing) was solid. I’d like to hear more of Jérôme Varnier and Patrick Bolleire, whose brief intervention was decidedly impressive, and Angélique Noldus was applauded warmly, though her page’s aria was what pages’ arias usually are: intrinsically thankless.

The orchestra and augmented chorus were at their most sumptuous, helped along by the Palais des Beaux Arts’ agreeably warm, woody acoustics, and Pidò was at his liveliest and most alert to detail, keeping the score going – it isn’t the kind of work you’d want to drag out. But as I said above, Roméo et Juliette is clearly a better opera than Faust or Mireille and I must say that, not being, based on the latter, a great fan of Gounod’s, I was impressed and would be happy to hear it again – which is more than could be said for Mireille. So, to repeat myself once more: a good afternoon.


  1. AnonymousJune 14, 2013

    i agree, especially on Osborne, but on the other hand, as i see it, Belgian public applauds because they appreciate, regardless whether they hear a star singing or a music-school performance. They just don't care very much, unless singers are Bartoli- or Netrebko famous, then they go wild. But not because they understand......




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