Given that the productions I’ve seen of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette have solidly serviced the opera’s nineteenth-century, insatiable grand-opera demands, Grange Park has proved that, despite the music’s cleverly crafted, guileless melodiousness and limpid sentimentality, along with the libretto’s rigorous filleting of Shakespeare’s original, Gounod’s take on the tragedy still comes up with its character and flavour intact – at least, this is the case in Patrick Mason’s new staging.
He and designer Francis O’Connor have placed it generically in Italy and the 1940s, with the Capulet mob as fascist black-shirts, the Montagues as leather-Jacketed Mafiosi bovver-boys and their women mostly in slinky black dresses, sporting Marcel waves. The chic, minimalist set adapts well to the various locations, including a balcony that slides out of one of the walls for the lovers’ duet. The look of the staging doesn’t shriek concept at you and manages to be both decisive and unobtrusive. The same applies to Mason’s efficient direction, both in the crowd scenes and the smaller ensembles.
One of the pleasures of summer opera is that it always comes up with singers you want to hear more of, and Grange Park has struck gold in its casting of the star-crossed lovers. Olena Tokar’s airy brightness fits Juliet’s coloratura music well in her devilish ‘Je veux vivre’, and although some top-range detail levels out, she deploys a half-flutter/half-trill with irresistible panache. Her move from teenage shyness to pop-star-style brilliance for this particular aria isn’t entirely credible, but otherwise Tokar is completely inside Juliet’s fast-forward to grown-up passion. In looks, acting and singing she ticks all the boxes in a powerful balcony scene and is even more impressive in her agonies of indecision after her secret marriage to Romeo.
David Junghoon Kim’s elegant, secure singing has made its mark many times at Covent Garden where he was a Jette Parker Young Artist until last year. He may not have the white-hot allure for this ultra-romantic tenor-superstar role, and his acting doesn’t match Tokar’s impulsiveness, but his voice is certainly in the right area – warm, lyrical and completely at home with the particular demands of this repertoire; his French also sounds idiomatic, and his delivery of ‘Ah, lève-toi soleil’ is inward and very seductive.
There are fine performances in the smaller roles – a lethally characterised Tybalt from the excellent Anthony Flaum; a sonorous Count Capulet from Clive Bayley, a father both touchingly exasperated by and devoted to his daughter; an even more sonorous Friar Laurence from Mats Almgren, with a very approximate command of French; and an immensely stylish, beautifully sung Gertrude, here cast as a chaperone-confidante rather than a nurse, from Olivia Ray. Gary Griffiths’s swaggering Mercutio is brilliantly effective in the well-choreographed fight-scene and in his Act One scena.
Stephen Barlow and the ENO Orchestra register the range of Gounod’s score, from hefty academic fugue to the flightiest of waltzes alongside occasional dips in inspiration; and Barlow, impressively so in the last two Acts, shows how ably he supports singers. The Chorus is on distinguished form, whether partying, fighting or preparing Juliet for marriage to the unsuspecting Count Paris.