Friday, November 11, 2011

Lovers and other icons

Machaidze, Grigolo make Roméo et Juliette smoulder

by Joseph Mailander

Here came a production that everyone in town who enjoys opera knows has everything going for it: our present LA Opera run of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. It has splendid red-hot soprano Nino Machaidze (above) as Juliette, off of her fabulous in-town spring romp in the flighty buffa of Il Turco in Italia. It has smouldering hot tenor Vittorio Grigolo preening, dancing, and dry-humping as buff Romeo, singing for his life. It has one of Ian Judge's now-patented whirling dervish stagings, with action, action, and action, twisting emotions, and more fun things to look at than most Grammy broadcasts. And it has global superstar Placido Domingo vigorously bobbing his grey mane in the pit, pumping the adroit orchestra with now musical, now historical sensibility. What could go wrong?

Nothing. Nothing goes wrong. It all comes off as you expect it would: shocking, whirlwind, fantastic, and playing this way to big big appreciative crowds at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A few sopranos have much enchanted LA audiences over the past decade, but Nino Machaidze is my own personal favorite. She hits every note and hits it with energy, makes most baritones sound like whisperers next to her, and far from a caged bird, stirs with every emotion every time she's called to do so. She's beautiful and poetic and her fill-the-house phrasings give her full license to the title of nuova regina della lirica and a few titles in English I haven't thought of. She's a special thing that happens to a place at a special time, and she's happened to LA twice now in the past six months, and it's been all wonderful, all the kind of performance that makes you want to see someone more than once a run.

Someone has to dare to stand next to her, and why not Tuscan-bred Vittorio Grigolo, as much a specimen as a singer, a Roméo who is quite the Romeo. He takes a ballerina's spin on hearing that Juliet will love him; he turns this production's skeletal but sumptuous steampunk set into his personal jungle gym, climbing ladders, hopping fences, approaching Juliette's balcony as though shooting through a floor exercise. When love is a waltz in the first act, he can barely contain himself. It continues through the curtain calls; he's singing, but he's also exhibiting athleticism at every point, sometimes shirtless in a very good way, sometimes convincing enough in Juliette's bed to fetch an X.

No, there's not much not to like here. The production is staged intriguingly, and for about an hour you might even think the stars of the show are the pulleys in the rafters as they lift and lower countless tealights, chandeliers, velvet curtains, mirrors...a panoply of mood hidden in the fourth story, waiting for showtime. Something I didn't favor that the pulleys leave hanging through the balcony scene are two gigantic rhizomes, a little too inviting of Round-Up for me to appreciate. I get it--two family trees with deep roots--but they didn't add anything. Everything else, though, far more subtle, does add, and, like the production itself, is perpetually fun to watch.

Give a thunderous nod to Maestro Placido, who may now have seen this opera more than any man or woman presently on earth has, and who spends more time watching the singers himself than any conductor I've observed. He can--he knows these scores backwards and forwards--he probably knows this one better than Charles Gounod ever did by now. He has a special look as a conductor--he doesn't ask for more, because when he simply looks at you, you are prompted to give more. He's obviously very pleased by now with where the orchestra is, and he pulls in the singers he wants.

Down the program, Museop Kim is a more-than-serviceable Mercurtio; he brings some comic relief to this taut and often engagingly stupid romance-cum-brawl. I also saw a stand-in, Renee Rapier, as the taunting boy Stephano; this is a role that doesn't do much for me, but she certainly went puckish enough to make it work better than it does for me ordinarily.

Try to get a ticket--but if you saw Machaidze in Turco, you probably already have anyway.

This Roméo et Juliette is an original LA Opera production. Remaining performances are on Saturday, November 12, 2011, at 7:30pm; Thursday, November 17, 2011, at 7:30pm; Sunday, November 20, 2011, at 2pm; Saturday, November 26, 2011, at 2pm. Ticket info here.

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