John Adams was not the first to compose an opera based on news reports and current events. Charles Gounod, to take an earlier example, is generally believed to have drawn inspiration for his Roméo et Juliette from an article he read in a discarded copy of La Cronaca di Verona newspaper that the wind blew beneath his café table on a Parisian spring afternoon in 1865. Here is a translated excerpt:
Teen Tomb Twosome Spark Calls for Reform
Demands for action are growing as activists, experts and ordinary citizens cite ready access to poisons and daggers as a major contributor to last night's double suicide of Juliet Capulet-Montague, 16, and Romeo Montague, 16, in the family mausoleum of the Capulets.
"Poisons and daggers are not toys," says Professore Fabrizzio Sforza del Destino, spokesperson for the Citizens League for the Public Safety of the Public. "There can only be trouble when at-risk youth can find poisons and daggers discarded and laying about on any given piece of furniture around the house. Parents need to consider the messages they are sending, and to clean up after themselves more regularly."
The Professore called again for the immediate adoption of emergency regulatory and registration provisions that have been proposed by the League repeatedly over the past four years. The draft legislation includes a new provision—"Juliet's Law"—imposing fines or imprisonment for failure to report the presence of either poisons or daggers within 100 feet of an unaccompanied minor.
Authorities continue to seek answers to the many questions raised by this latest tragedy. Investigators indicate that Ms. Capulet and Mr. Montague had recently met at a so-called "ball," in an upper echelon neighborhood of the city. Having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, and finding poisons and daggers readily to hand, the couple embarked on a whirlwind 24 hours of spumante-fueled cuddling, traditional marriage, random violence, and eventual death. The Coroner's preliminary report indicates the presence of poisons and daggers at the death scene.
In a potentially related development, Church officials have acknowledged that popular local youth counselor Friar Lawrence has been placed on paid administrative leave. The Capulet-Montague tragedy is the third such incident in the past six months. All of the dead teens are believed have frequented Friar Lawrence's popular "Second Story" mentoring program.
Sources close to the investigation have suggested that Lawrence is a person of interest in connection with a suspected dagger and poisons distribution ring. The Church has declined comment on those suggestions, citing the existence of an "ongoing investigation."
Roméo et Juliette (1867) is just the sort of opera that I generally shun. It may be sung in French, but for all intents and purposes it is an old-fashioned Italian bel canto piece, blithely ignoring the musical and dramatic advances that had already been achieved by the like of Wagner and Verdi. Its plot is no more than an excuse for a bit of spectacle and a series of showy arias, all surface and sentiment. (West Side Story, which good as it is is still just a Broadway musical, is a vastly more sophisticated take on this material than Gounod cared to attempt.) The characters are paper thin, no more than names and stock types. The music is there to be pretty and to push the expected emotional buttons. It is the operatic stuff that actually sells tickets, rather than the stuff of depth, thought and drama. And much though it chafes at my pretentious core to say it, at what it tries to do it largely succeeds.
Los Angeles Opera is currently reviving its 2005 production, directed by Ian Judge. That premiere run featured Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon as the lovers, and they were received as a hubba-hubba sensation. Here, Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze assume the title roles.
Ms. Machaidze is lovely to look at, possessed of abundant charm, and sings Juliet's high-flying arias as well as one could ask, but she has an innate quality of sultry sophistication that is almost too adult for the part. The quality that is an obstacle here was used to far greater advantage in last season's Turk in Italy, in which she was an entire delight.
Vittorio Grigolo, on the other hand, has no difficulty whatever with the unbound adolescent swagger of Romeo. This is his show, in the end. He, too, has every vocal skill the part requires in abundance, his tenor enveloping some real power in a tone smooth as butter. For those to whom such things are important, he gets his shirt off on several occasions and looks great doing it, which is to say that he looks like the Teen Adonis that Romeo should ought to be. He is a big, dangerous puppy of a Romeo, meaning well but unable to contain his more irresponsible urges.
Director Judge keeps the story moving briskly. He has probably directed more productions at Los Angeles Opera than anyone else over the past two decades, and one of his hallmarks is to keep things as interesting around the edges as in the foreground. Something is always going on, or some telling detail or attractive aesthetic touch is being rolled out. The fight sequences have real speed and snap, and a sense of actual danger unusual in an opera house. Judge's fondness for gratuitous nudity is not, in this case, on display.
The production is immeasurably helped by John Gunter's set design. The action is set in Gounod's era, rather than the Renaissance, and the city of Verona has been recreated as in effect a giant 3-dimensional blueprint: lines, uprights, arches, towers, innumerable staircases, but no walls. The pieces are immense, but easily moved into new configurations, speeding the transition from scene to scene. It is even nicer to look at than the principals, which is saying something.
There is strength in the supporting cast as well. I don't often single out the Chorus at LA Opera, because I tend to take for granted that they will be reliable when called on. (Also, my little sister is a long time chorus member.) I do not recall when they have sounded better than they do in this production: rich, supple, with admirable clarity over the full range of volumes.
Standout individual supporting players include Museop Kim as Mercutio, particularly in the paean to Queen Mab; Vitalij Kowaljow, formerly LA Opera's Wotan, as Friar Lawrence (from Freyer to friar!); and Vladimir Chernov as old Capulet, a spritely fellow who would really prefer to forget family rivalries for the sake of a good party.
Three performances remain through November 26.
Photos by Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.