NEW YORK — When you’ve got two star singers with genuine chemistry, it makes sense to mount a new production for them; and for those who saw Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo in the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Romeo and Juliet,” which was broadcast on HD last week, that was fine. But the test of a production is what happens when the stars are not so bright, and on Wednesday night, when Amanda Woodbury made a scheduled appearance in the role of Juliet, the production, by Bartlett Sher, revealed just how poor it was: a leaden, uninspired, unlovely straitjacket that worked against Gounod’s pretty music.
The Met appears to be limping along at the moment, strapped for funds and lacking artistic fizz. But if you have to compromise due to financial hardship, give me John Dexter’s stripped-down sets from the 1970s, which at least represented some artistic vision, rather than Michael Yeargan’s heavy unit set, a big stone facade with monolithic balconies that could have been recycled from any of a dozen other operas, along with the 18th-century costumes (by Catherine Zuber). Why the 18th century, for a story from the Renaissance, in an opera first performed in 1867? Who knows?
It’s bewildering that a director who has directed such telling productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals should seem so utterly at sea when it comes to opera, and equally bewildering that the Met keeps hiring him. The cast seemed largely stultified by the lack of ideas, which reduced “acting” to climbing up and down things, like the large pillar at one side of the stage which seemed to be placed there for that purpose. Vittorio Grigolo, as Romeo, at least sang with genuine Italian ardor and beauty, but he was unable to carry on his shoulders a cast without many bright spots (though Virginie Verrez, a current member of the Met’s Lindemann young-artist program, had a nice turn as the page Stephano). Woodbury had an unenviable job trying to fill Damrau’s shoes, but though she seemed reasonably assured on stage and visibly exerted herself, she was no more than a placeholder, with a voice that grew thin on top and a general lack of fire.
It was left to the Met’s chorus and orchestra to carry the day, under the energetic ministrations of Gianandrea Noseda, who made sounds emerge from the pit of such vivid force that he almost succeeded in creating the illusion that what was happening on stage was more than lackluster.
Noseda, of course, is the incoming music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, which just announced programming for his maiden season, and he appears to be riding high. He certainly seemed to have found his groove with the Met orchestra, which sounded energized and strong under his leadership — and with whom, it was announced at the Carnegie Hall season announcement that morning, he will be leading Mahler’s Fifth in 2018. This is all good news for the NSO, which may emerge in a more assured role on the national scene thanks to Noseda’s ambitions — which have already led to Medici.tv, the classical music streaming site, live-broadcasting three of this season’s concerts (the next on Feb. 11, when Joshua Bell both conducts and solos with the orchestra).
New York, meanwhile, is under something of a shadow. Not only is the Met struggling, while Lincoln Center is still looking for a president, but the New York Philharmonic appears to have gone into free fall. Last week, three high-level staffers announced their resignations, including the president, Matthew VanBesien, meaning that the orchestra is about to start a season without a music director (Alan Gilbert is stepping down, and Jaap van Zweden will not take over until the 2018-19 season), a president, a head of fundraising or a head of artistic operations — and still trying to continue fundraising for its newly renovated hall. It’s a bleak prospect, and casts a shadow over the institutional classical landscape in the city that has long been viewed as the nation’s cultural capital — a shadow that “Romeo,” alas, did nothing to dispel.