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Violent Delights Have Violent Ends in LA Opera's 'R&J'

Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo are together in eternity (Photo: Robert Millard)
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You read the play in high school. You probably saw "West Side Story" some time around then, too. There was that weird movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. If you've had a dancer in your life, you might have even heard Prokofiev's ballet score. (Berlioz and Tchaikovsky tackled it as well.) But unless you're a real opera devotee, there's a good chance you haven't seen Charles Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette." Happily, LA Opera's current production is very much worth seeing.

"Romeo et Juliette" is not one of the masterworks of the repertory, but, performed well, it does offer a compelling French interpretation of this most classic of love stories. And with five impassioned duets between the pair of star-cross'd lovers, any performance of the opera rises or falls primarily on the qualities of the two lead singers. Both here are knockouts.

Italy's operatic pop star sensation Vittorio Grigolo goes all out in portraying Romeo as both a lover and a fighter, as ardent and energetic in his fatal street brawl with Tybalt as he is in bed with Juliette. (LA Opera's web site cautions parents that the production contains "possible nudity," which we were spared at the opening performance, but we see how it could happen.) Hyped in various corners as the new Pavarotti, Grigolo is a far more committed actor than his great mentor, with a similarly strong, if not yet as expressive, voice. He also seems to possess the requisite jocular ego, repeatedly trying to exhort the audience to pump up the volume of its applause and cheers during his curtain call (wonder how that goes over in Milan).

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was Juliette, which she has previously sung to considerable acclaim at Salzburg and La Scala. Clearly this is a signature role for her right now, and she is perfect for it, with an agile coloratura and a nice modulation of her character from not-quite-innocent to heedlessly passionate. The balcony scene, the bedroom scene and the (spoiler alert) final death scene - all the old familiar plot points - come sensuously to life in Grigolo and Machaidze's unabashed performances.

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The LA Opera "Romeo e Juliette," directed by Ian Judge, is neither traditionally lavish nor modernly minimalist. The action is updated to take place in the 19th century, with costumes to match, and John Gunter's set is framed by movable scaffolds which give Grigolo an opportunity to display his impressive athleticism as he nimbly climbs up and down them even while singing. Standouts in the supporting cast include Vladimir Chernov as Capulet, Vitalij Kowaljov as Friar Lawrence and Renee Rapier as the boy page Stephano. But it's those two stars you're really coming to see.

"Romeo et Juliette," with Placido Domingo on the conductor's podium, will be performed tonight, Saturday and Thursday the 18th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday the 20th and Saturday the 26th at 2 p.m at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Tickets are $32 and up, half-price tickets available to students age 9-17 by calling (213) 972-8001.