Ask for the world’s most famous love story and almost everyone, across the world, across the centuries, both queer and straight, would name this one. Shakespeare’s mighty play -“ although he too nicked it from earlier sources -“ has inspired countless ballets, operas and films. With Shakespeare In Love, West Side Story, and especially the versions by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann, it was film directors though who restored the compulsive eroticism of these star-crossed lovers, and gave it back to the teenagers.
Gounod’s opera of 1867 trims Shakespeare’s drama down to focus just on the lovers and their duets. He even holds off their usually isolated deaths in the final tomb scene so as to fit in just one last duet. But while his beautiful music expresses high romance, the lover’s passion, constrained by the bourgeois reserve of Gounod’s times, is here more quasi-religious than sexual.
Stuart Maunder’s new production for Opera Australia underlines this coy restriction by setting the opera in that same stiff-collared period when, apparently, everyone just adored this new work. So we are in the French Second Empire with a sumptuous design, at least in Jennifer Irwin’s costumes, but in a production more competently conventional than exciting. Countering this is the appeal of the leads, played by beefy American tenor Eric Cutler and soprano Emma Matthews. Matthews’s voice (she is replaced by Natalie Jones in the last three performances) trills and soars through Gounod’s graceful vocal writing and yet powers through the adult tragedy soon thrust upon Juliet. Cutler too has vocal power and presence.
Conductor Richard Bonynge deftly keeps Gounod’s melodies dancing and, in a welcome return to the theme of Shakespeare’s wider drama, the chorus offers a spine-tingling portrayal of citizens divided by factional warfare. Gounod’s grandiose romance, however, leaves little room for other related themes and dramatic elements -“ and singers. Andrew Brunsdon as Tybalt, Rosemary Gunn as Juliet’s nurse and Sally-Anne Russell in the traditional pants role as Romeo’s rascal servant, Stephano, all find some space to shine. What I miss in Gounod -“ and it is inexplicably further underplayed in this new production -“ is the electric sexual coquetry, the adolescent joy in love, of these famed lovers.
Romeo et Juliette runs at the Sydney Opera House until 5 November.