Transcendent Love

December 01st, 2016

Director Bartlett Sher, whose new production of Roméo et Juliette opens on New Year’s Eve with Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo, explains how Shakespeare soars in Gounod’s hands.

Shakespeare’s plays are ubiquitous, but what effect do you think operatic adaptation has on the drama?
I think opera is a very good expressive medium for Shakespeare. There are many iterations of his work—theater, musicals, film, opera—but I think opera is one of the best, especially for certain plays like Othello and Romeo and Juliet. They just are so heightened—you can really go for the scale of Shakespeare’s expression in the music. I find it quite satisfying and, for me as a director, challenging.

Romeo and Juliet is especially familiar. How does Gounod’s operatic setting compare to Shakespeare’s original play?
Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette follows Shakespeare’s story quite closely, but Gounod’s interests are different from Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare focuses on the idea of individual love in the face of the Renaissance institution of arranged marriage. And this idea of individual love leads to the idea of personal freedom more generally, and to the tension between the expectations of Renaissance culture and the freedom of a young woman to have a personal identity and to make choices of her own. Gounod is a more spiritual writer. He’s much more interested in love’s transcendent qualities, and how, through music, you can achieve that transcendence. He was influenced by Wagner, and you hear and feel a lot of spirituality, and great longing, in the music. So, for example, you have these exceptional duets in which Gounod is really trying to reach God somehow with the music.

How would you describe the look of your production?
Our production design is based on a very tall, imposing Italian structure, with high walls and windows, and a huge alley heading upstage that can be filled with people to give a sense of crowds. It creates the character of an Italian piazza, so that you can feel the social nature of the story. The audience will experience it as a sort of ancient Italian collective social space, which this young couple punctures with their own interests and their own desire for freedom.

Have you changed the time period of the action?
We haven’t strictly adhered to Shakespeare’s early-Renaissance setting. In our design for the clothes, for example, we were influenced by Fellini’s film Casanova, and so our costumes are more 18th-century and are pretty extreme in terms of richness and wealth. Also, the 18th century is a bit friendlier than the 14th, in terms of how the clothes can look. But it’s not something where I’ve decided to place the opera in a contemporary setting, which would be very difficult with this work. It’s a very concrete plot, so it doesn’t open up in the way Wagner, or even Gounod’s more familiar Faust, does to these sort of radical deconstructionist interpretations.
The title roles will be sung by soprano Diana Damrau and tenor Vittorio Grigolo, both of whom you’ve worked with before. What do you expect them to bring to this production?
Diana is probably the single most talented person I’ve ever worked with, like, ever at anything. She’s just over-the-top gifted—she sings better than anyone else, her acting is extraordinary, and her intelligence is at the highest level. This is my third opera with her, and it’s very exciting to work with her on Juliette. For Roméo, we have Vittorio, whom I worked with on this production at La Scala. His voice is extraordinary, and he has genuine charm and exuberance. Also, he’s completely, happily out of control at all times. He’s a little bit on the dangerous side—you get the sense that something crazy could happen at any moment, but I love that about him. To capture the passion of these characters, who can’t seem to stay away from each other, you need this sense of danger, this sense of risk-taking and willingness to do anything.

This will be your seventh Met production since your 2006 debut with Il Barbiere di Siviglia. What draws you back to opera in general, and what attracted you about Roméo and Juliette in particular?
What makes opera extraordinary is the amazing combination of heightened emotional expression, great singers, and a composer who can push it all off the chart. When all of that comes together, you forget you’re sitting in a theater—you’re just hearing this exposed, overwhelming emotional thought on the largest possible scale, created with the highest level of skill. There are about 12 of those moments in this music. When you get to the end, for example, and Roméo and Juliette are in the tomb together [in a scene added to the original story by Gounod’s librettists], their duet is unbelievably soaring and powerful, and so full of longing and possibility and mistakes that were made. It’s deliciously tragic.

—Edited by Jay Goodwin