This time last year, the Metropolitan Opera's foray into high-def simulcasts in movie theaters across the country was a quixotic experiment. Now, the second simulcast season, opening tomorrow with an all-star performance of Gounod's

Romeo et Juliette

, feels like an institution - with Washington Opera, La Scala and no doubt others catching on to the idea.

Despite reports of considerable technical glitches in venues (and some customer-care deficits in local theaters), tickets are sought heatedly in advance, and even one of the larger venues, Philadelphia's Riverview Cinema, was almost sold out days before tomorrow's

Romeo

. There's no wait-and-see period on scheduling "encore" viewings, which are repeat showings that, unlike the Saturday events, don't offer the fine distinction of being live, but are more flexibly scheduled at a more civilized afternoon hour (especially for those on the West Coast, where live screenings are as early as 10 a.m.). The number of movie theaters has expanded from two in the Philadelphia area for the simulcast debut to six for tomorrow's

Romeo

- and with good reason. Artistically speaking, this year's opening follows a formula that may not be new (this is opera, and the Met, you understand) but is significantly improved.

The telegenic, theatrically adept, vocally alluring Anna Netrebko is the linchpin here, following last season's

I Puritani

, where she was magnetic onstage, fun and playful in interviews offstage. Instead of a dowdy production from the deepest bowels of the Met's warehouse (the case with

I Puritani

),

Romeo et Juliette

looks spiffy and handsome, with crowd-pleasing effect in Act 4: The curtain opens on a marriage bed that appears to be suspended in midair.

Netrebko's leading man isn't just superstar tenor Roberto Alagna, but a version of him that seems eager for redemption after his mid-performance walkout at La Scala. Though Placido Domingo receives mixed reviews for his conducting, his presence in the orchestra pit feels like luxury casting. If one can speculate on the basis of Wednesday's performance of

Romeo et Juliette

- which was also used as a camera rehearsal of sorts for Saturday - movie-theater audiences are in for an excellent day at the opera, though one that may be slow to catch fire.

The opera itself isn't the most exalted item in the Met's repertoire; Gounod's lyrical gifts sustain the familiar plot, if just barely, bolstered by obviously compositional co-opting from Berlioz, Bizet and Wagner and a solid sense of dramatic pace. The 2005 Guy Joosten production has brainy allusions to Galileo and other Renaissance-era thinkers, serving to contextualize Romeo and Juliet not as sexual outlaws, but as vanguards of a new order. A large portal in the back of the stage reveals celestial images suggestive of any given scene's psychological temperature, flanked by one-dimensional flats of quaint Italian cityscapes. A center-stage turntable lends extra pageantry to crowd scenes.

Netrebko's voice has morphed into a darker, weightier instrument that was great for her potion-drinking scene (true operatic magic, there) but could only approximate the role's famous Act 1 coloratura aria, which she pulled off thanks to an animated physical presentation that made the breezy tunes into a remarkably detailed character exposition.

Alagna's tenor sounded spineless at first, and the Met's acoustics have never particularly flattered his middle-weight voice. But even if he never regains the pitch specificity of years past, he was much like his old self by Act 2, despite having to emotionally check out of his role to prepare for the big "money notes" - all brilliantly rendered.

Baritone Nathan Gunn (Mercutio) couldn't help directing the focus of his scenes toward himself, not because of his much-discussed hunk factor, but because few opera singers, particularly male ones, move in such inventively character-relevant ways.

Domingo's conducting seemed solid; you can't ask for more in a lighter-weight piece like this.

If You Go

Time:

1 p.m. live performance tomorrow, 3 p.m. "encore" transmission Sunday

Length

: Three hours, 30 minutes, one intermission

Places: AMC Neshaminy

Bensalem (plus encore)

Regal King of Prussia

King of Prussia

Regal Riverview Plaza

Philadelphia

National Amusements U-Penn

(plus encore)

Regal Warrington Crossing

Warrington

Showcase at the Ritz Center

, Voorhees (plus encore)

Tickets:

$22 adults, $20 seniors, $15 children

Information

800-638-6737 or

Fathomevents.com

Movietickets.com

The Regal Riverview Plaza sells advance tickets through

» READ MORE: www.fandango.com

or 215-755-2219.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.