Consistent with the "improved" edition of the play touring Europe in the early 19th Century, Romeo's poison doesn't take effect in either work until after Juliet's sleeping potion wears off. (What librettist or composer could resist slipping in another love duet?)
Not to put too fine a point on it, neither Frenchman was up to the love-death challenge. Gounod's opera lurches from rather good ballet music to rather bad Viennese operetta and back, with a few rip-roaring love duets thrown in.Gounod's opera begins with a masked ball where the sexually precocious debutante, Juliette, and the not-so-merry bachelor, Roméo, meet. Apart from some fleeting macho posturing, it's all saccharine sweetness and wan light until the second scene in Act III, which begins the second half in the current production.
That's also when Gounod's one unequivocal enhancement (in operatic terms) takes centre stage. Gounod gives Roméo a page boy, a mezzo trouser-role, sung here with insolent sass by the wonderful Suzanne Johnston. She manages to look like she'd be at home in both The Sentimental Bloke and A Clockwork Orange, which is exactly right for a role which is one part troubadour and one part provocateur.
While the two leads might not be as delightful dramatically, Leanne Kenneally and Julian Gavin are tremendously good, vocally, as Juliette and Roméo. Kenneally has a creamy edge to her girlish soprano, which makes her exactly right for the role. Gavin thrilled the opening night audience with a uncommon strength and purity of tone.
This new production of Roméo et Juliette, commissioned by the national Opera Conference, replaces one of Opera Australia's very best. In fourteen years, Robert Helpmann's flair for placement, for tableau and mise en scene, has rarely been matched on our opera stage.
But, while it is sad to see a good production pensioned off prematurely, Sarah Carradine's new production makes a remarkably good fist of what is, after all, an overblown panto. Carradine dumps the archaic and dramatically redundant "Paris Opera" interlude, in which Juliet's funeral is marked by a hoedown, allowing events to unfold at a terrific pace.
To quote the wrong Gertrude: "One woe doth tread upon another's heel/So fast they follow." Our Julie gets laid, "dies" during her bigamous marriage to Paris and gets buried -- twice -- all in the space of a single day. We go from little death to big death (with one faked in between) in a single, extended scene. And there are lashings of Wagnerian potions to go round.
On the down side, the new Roméo at Juliette has a dinky "Postcode 2000-compliant" set. It's even smaller than the usual shrunk-to-fit settings thanks to its false proscenium. (That's a complaint that certainly can't be levelled at the impressively lofty set for Opera Australia's Fidelio.)
In a season that hasn't quite lived up to its off-the-brochure promise, Roméo et Juliette comes in second in a field of five (to date) behind an exquisite Pelléas et Mélisande. La Clemenza di Tito opens next week. [Wednesday May 5]
Roméo et Juliette by Gounod. Directed by Sarah Carradine. Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne, until May 15, 1999. Sydney Opera House, June 12 to July 23.
This review was published in the May 1-2  edition of the Australian Financial Review.