- Associated Press - Friday, March 4, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Before dying on stage, the lead singers in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” get sick.

Really. In startling frequency.

When Guy Joosten’s staging opened in November 2005, soprano Natalie Dessay missed the premiere performance because of a cold.

For the 2007 revival, tenor Rolando Villazon canceled in the midst of vocal problems that eventually required surgery, and was replaced by a trio of tenors. The second, Joseph Kaiser, got sick and the Met persuaded Marcello Giordani to take over on short notice.

Angela Gheorghiu was to return this season to a role she last sung at the Met in 1998, but she has been feeling ill for weeks and medical tests still haven’t determined the cause, according to agent Jack Mastroianni.

So just a day before the revival opened Thursday, the Met announced she will be replaced for the entire run by Hei-Kyung Hong, who was Gheorghiu’s backup “cover” singer but hadn’t performed Juliette at the Met in nearly 15 years.

Hong had pitch problems in the first act and, after intermission, at the start of the fourth. But both times she warmed. Her sound was bright and her energy entertaining. In totality, it was a winning performance under difficult circumstances.

Piotr Beczala was her Romeo and had a bright, pingy and colorful tenor. There was some straining in the upper register, and unfortunately at the end of the third act he tried for a high note that shattered into a rancid crack, prompting much of the audience to wince.

Aside from that, it was an admirable performance from a top-level singer. His duet with Hong was lovely.

James Morris returned to Frere Laurent, which he hadn’t sung at the Met since 1974, lending a gravely nobility to the role. Dwayne Croft was a dashing Capulet and Julie Boulianne a charming Stephano. Sean Panikkar (Tybalt) and Lucas Meachem (Mercutio), Wendy White (Gertrude) rounded out the top-notch ensemble.

Placido Domingo, who also conducted the previous revival, brought out some lovely sounds from the Met orchestra in the softer passages. The production seizes of the reference to “a pair of star-cross’d lovers” in the prelude and saturates the audience with astronomical references.

There are six more performances through March 26.

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Online:

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