Music: They Make You Believe It Matters ; Romeo et Juliette Royal Opera House Lorin Maazel Barbican, London Annick Massis Wigmore Hall, London
Kimberley, Nick, The Independent (London, England)
This country may not have made much of a musical contribution to 19th-century opera, but its literary contribution cannot be overlooked. Take away all the operas based on Walter Scott and the Italian bel canto repertoire would be much diminished, and Shakespeare got made over into countless languages by numberless composers, each of whom wanted something different from him.
When Gounod came to make an opera from Romeo and Juliet, it's quite clear what he was looking for: lots of opportunities for a tenor and soprano to sing at each other. And that's just what he got. Does it matter that, in his Romeo et Juliette, the lovers could be any doomed couple in any romantic opera? Not really, as long as the roles are sung well, which by and large they are in Covent Garden's revival of Nicolas Joel's production. Needless to say, it helps that Romeo is Roberto Alagna, and Juliette Angela Gheorghiu. Their offstage intimacy translates well to the on-stage clinches: when they embrace, it's with a naturalness far removed from the don't- touch-me-there froideur of most operatic love scenes.
One of the problems with Joel's staging, at least in the hands of Alagna and Gheorghiu, is that they don't touch often enough. Much of the expression is projected straight out into the auditorium rather than between characters, and Alagna in particular sings at the front of the stage, as if everything is an aside to the audience. The chorus of Capulets and Montagues crouch and wave their daggers as if auditioning for a low-rent production of West Side Story, and, when in Act IV Juliette appears to die during her wedding ceremony, everybody dutifully crosses themselves and kneels to pray, without a single look being exchanged.
And Alagna and Gheorghiu, too, are rather old-fashioned; they perform as if the opera is there to serve them, rather than the other way round. They get away with it only as long as they sing properly, which they do. Alagna's voice becomes taut when Gounod pushes it to the top of its range, which he does often, but elsewhere the combination of baritonal depth and suave shaping of phrases are the marks of a fine performer. Gheorghiu is finer still, the voice full from top to bottom: this is a Juliette in rude good health. Her naturally sombre tone leads Shakespearean morbidity to the lilting waltz of "Ah! Je veux vivre", and when Romeo and Juliette finally expire together, it's possible to believe it matters.
The show is conducted by Charles Mackerras, 75 this year and still wonderful. His control of pace and drama is as secure as it was in ENO's production of Handel's Alcina two months ago: triumphs at both London opera houses in such a short period is no mean achievement. He remains one of the most effective conductors today.
A "strong, decisive beat ... absence of fussiness or superfluous action ... clear, unmistakable definition of time and rhythm": it might be a description of Mackerras, but it's actually the critic Herman Klein remembering Gustav Mahler at Covent Garden in 1892, and it's somewhat at odds with the various caricatures that survive of Mahler conducting as if he had St Vitus's dance. …