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Opera review: 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 7, 2011 |  5:30 pm

Grigolo and Machaidze
Los Angeles Opera has done it again. Six years ago the company introduced the most promising young tenor in quite some time, Rolando Villazón, and paired him with the exquisite soprano Anna Netrebko as the dazzling new dream couple in a new production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Sunday afternoon that production was back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this time introducing the dashing Vittorio Grigolo, the most promising young tenor since, well, Villazón. His Juliet was the sultry Nino Machaidze, and – voilà! -- a brand new dazzling dream couple for opera.

PHOTOS: L.A. Opera's 'Romeo and Juliet'

And that, I’m sorry to report, means that, once more, canary fanciers and all fascinated by the future of musical theater are required to put up with Gounod’s dreary antique.

First, the big news about Grigolo. Sunday was his L.A. Opera debut. It was not his first L.A. appearance, however. In 2006 -- the year he released  pop single “You are My Miracle” with Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls -- he sang at the Miss Universe Evening Gown Competition here. The next year, he recorded a perfectly awful “West Side Story” with Hayley Westenra and Connie Fisher. Sony has lately begun hyping him as a cross between Mario Lanza and Franco Corelli on solo CDs.

But if good taste hasn’t been his strongest suit, maybe good sense has been. He made his La Scala debut at 23, and didn’t rush off and destroy his voice as so many young tenors have done with early success. He is now 34, although he looks and sounds younger. He’s been making big impressions of late at the Royal Opera in London and at La Scala. Sunday, he was commanding vocally and theatrically.

Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” is about the lovers and not much else. They have five love duets, all of them boilerplate. But there is plenty of opportunity for passion, and Grigolo had a ready supply. He jumped up balconies, leaped around the stage and poured his heart out. The voice is big, not huge, and he is not one to hold back. But Plácido Domingo was conducting, and nothing got out of hand.  

Despite Grigolo's clear addiction to the limelight, he didn’t upstage Machaidze, whose Salzburg Festival Juliette with Villazón in 2008 was her breakthrough (she made her L.A. Opera debut the next year in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”). She was smoldering Sunday, and Grigolo never seemed to get enough of that either.

The attraction of Gounod’s 1867 opera, which is stuffily conventional although it has a couple of well-liked tunes, must be the evolution of puppy love to worldliness in little more than three hours. The puppy stayed in Grigolo. Machaidze, on the other hand, is more artificial as an ingénue. She made her "Waltz Song," the opera’s most famous number, sparkle. But a seductively dark poignancy suited her best.

The first time around Ian Judge’s production, which is played on a skeletal set by John Gunter, seemed overactive in its necessary attempt to juice up Gounod. This time, two attractive singers who couldn't keep their hands off each other made it work.

Gounod dutifully supplied his French public all it enjoyed -- a big ball, a big fight, a bit of religion and adequate time in the tombs. Judge's efficiency and tendency to surprise seemed more satisfying this time around, as well.

The opera is French and most effective when sung by the French. The L.A. cast added a sonorous Russian school flavor: Vitalij Kowaljow (the impressive Wotan of the L.A. Opera “Ring”) was a resonant Friar Laurence; Vladimir Chernov, a gracious Capulet; and Alexey Sayapin a hot-headed Tybalt. Museop Kim was a blander Mercutio. The most French sounding singer was mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier as Stephano, a Montague youth invented for the opera to taunt the Capulets with song. Ronnita Nicole Miller was Juliet’s resounding nurse.

Domingo's conducting was not the last word in French finesse, either but he went beyond dutiful to get some beautiful playing from the orchestra, especially the lower strings. In September, he was accused in the Washington Post of sabotaging singers in a production of “Tosca” he conducted at the Kennedy Center, and a controversy arose after Domingo wrote a letter to the editor taking umbrage at the idea that he would consciously undermine a performance.

Just back from opening an new opera house in Oman, singing in an arena concert in Zagreb and two galas at Covent Garden in London, Domingo may have done little, or had too little rehearsal time, to make Gounod’s score sound better than it is. But Grigolo and Machaidze certainly did, and I don’t think that would have been possible without a conductor’s help on some meaningful level.


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-- Mark Swed

“Romeo and Juliet,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Wed., Sat. and Nov. 17; 2 p.m. Nov. 20 and 26; $20-$270; (213) 972-8001 or Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Vittorio Grigolo and Nino Machaidze in Los Angeles Opera's “Romeo and Juliet.” Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.