'Romeo et Juliette': Cut to the bone

Posted: July 06, 2002

CHARLES GOUNOD: "ROMEO ET JULIETTE." 5:30 p.m. Sunday, WHYY-TV (Channel 12).

Call this one "R&J Lite," a boiled-down version for opera nibblers.

This film version of Charles Gounod's opera stars the wildly acclaimed husband-and-wife team of tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu as the ill-fated teen-age lovers in "Romeo et Juliette," though their 180-minute complete CD version has been shortened to 73 minutes. That means director Barbara Willis Sweete (who did last year's "Don Giovanni Unmasked") cut to the chase - or at least the various deaths - and cut out the plot filigree between the Montagues and the Capulets, which gives the story its juice.

The production was moved from Verona to a 13th-century castle in Czechoslovakia, allowing some fine visual style. There's a brief swordfight in the field, a balcony which wraps around the castle, and woods in which dark, motionless figures symbolize the ominous family feud in place of plot.

Though there may not be many famous arias in the work, there are many gorgeous moments in the opulent French style. You can easily feel the electricity between the lovers, and the balcony scene is very moving. (The pair are famed for being difficult and demanding at opera houses, yet were reportedly very cooperative on this project.) Gheorghiu sings beautifully, although her lip-synching isn't always perfect, and Alagna has a smooth voice, though he bellows and forces at top volume.

A scene in which he carries Juliet, who he thinks is dead, to a stone bench in a garden, is very effective. But when he hears her awakened voice, his singing to the top of a tree instead of rushing to her side kills the illusion of reality implied by the setting. Also, because of the cuts in the storyline, Juliet must immediately forgive Romeo, whom she hardly knows, though he has just killed her relative.

Purists will run in horror. But I'll give it a B- for a flawed try at bringing an old-fashioned but very lush opera to life, with attractive leads as well.

Stick around for the remaining 15 minutes, which offers the balcony scene from Prokofiev's flaming masterpiece on the same story from London's Royal Ballet. There's a short clip of legendary Russian dancer Galina Ulanova as Juliet, then Kenneth McMillan's more recent choreography with Wayne Eagling as Romeo and Alessandra Ferri as Juliet. In her dancing, face and gestures, Ferri conveys a astonishing rainbow of the emotions a teen-age girl feels from her first great love.

"Romeo and Juliet" was a well-known story even before Shakespeare, and everyone from Bellini ("I Capuleti e i Montecchi," which was performed by the Opera Company last year) to Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story") has altered the story. But even though Gounod's flowing setting takes its time, it deserved a little more meat on its bones. *

Send email to dinardt@phillynews.com.

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