Saw LA Opera's Romeo yesterday, sans main draw Vittorio Grigolo. The company served up a fun surprise sub though, in Charlie Castronovo, in town for a gala the previous night--he was unfamiliar to me but apparently a big hit in their Il Postino the other year. The reviews made Grigolo sound like a supreme exponent of the lusty Italian Romeo, so I imagine Castronovo's fine French styling and longing puppy-dog looks actually shifted the overall impression from Sonny to Tony quite a bit. Castronovo's lyric tenor has that plaintive edge ideal for Romeo, and never degenerates into anything close to shoutiness, even when the demands of the score get less polite. I thought at times he had trouble cutting through the orchestra, but this seemed to disappear when he stood on the upper levels of the set, so I'm going to tentatively blame the quality of the Chandler pavilion acoustics in the middle of the orchestra. And since you ask, rest assured that the hottniss level was preserved in Grigolo's absence, as Castronovo is also really, really, really, ridiculously good looking and had no trouble popping off that shirt for the bed business (prediction: in 10 years no one even mildly fugly is going to be let anywhere near big time productions of this show).
His costar, Nino Machaidze, has many things going for her--a big formidable sound that is brilliant on top and agile throughout, a generosity with the fireworks throughout money numbers like the poison aria (though choppy phrasing prevented this from being a real home run), and of course, the hotniss. But these are relatively generic pleasures and she never really offered a believable Juliet. R&J is pretty indestructible as warhorses go, but for the final tomb scene to deliver its emotional payload and not just some priddy sangin', we need to really pity Juliet as a vulnerable child meeting a gruesome end. Some judiciously deployed restraint is really all that is required to get there but Machaidze's attempts at coquetry had all the credibility of a courtesan who doesn't think she's fooling anyone (the Penthouse Executive Club midtown tunnel billboard makeup scheme she had going on--see above--did not help things either). There's certainly no disputing she's a charismatic stage presence, but I would like to see her in something that takes more appropriate advantage of her special qualities.
The production transplants the action to the 19th century (in France maybe?), an attempt, as we learned in the preconcert lecture, to better align the work's gothic, romantic themes with the period in which they are at home. But its one of those situations where you suspect the move was really made because 19th century costumes are easier to procure than Renaissance, as none of the rewards of the updating are exploited with too fine a point. The physical production is organized around multi-story skeletal structures that are moved to create different spaces. Useful enough, but the ultimate effect, as it usually is with this trick, is to dissolve any atmosphere that might have been generated. Probably budget-friendly, though. The direction was effective enough, with an appropriately boisterous fight centerpiece. Judgment is reserved on the spotty chemistry of the leads during their scenes together, for obvious reasons.
I'm glad to say Placido's work in the pit was far less distracting than last month's Tosca debacle. No doubt, there's more life to be had in this music under other batons and some showpieces really suffered from the lack of momentum (sorry Stephano the page cover!), but a few coordination hiccups aside, he supported the singers sensitively and without incident.