This being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, opera companies all over the world are programming Shakespearean-themed works. The Santa Fe Opera is putting on Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, in a no expense spared co-production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Considered the best known and most prestigious opera house in Spain — pace Teatre Real and Palau de les Artes Reina Sofia — the Liceu is famous for its elaborate productions and stellar casts, often starring famous Latin opera singers. This show certainly was a highlight among a week of operatic highlights for me.
The Gounod opera is often performed cut due to its length. An archetypal French Grand Opera, it’s five acts plus the obligatory ballet, inserted by Gounod into Act Four. To keep the evening to a manageable length, the opera is usually done with just one, or at most two intermissions. As far as I can tell, the score is presented here either complete or only slightly cut. Having seen many R&J over the years, this was the first time I actually saw the ballet, albeit reduced to only two ballerinas. Austere grandeur comes to mind when describing the set by Ashley Martin-Davis, predominantly grey, but with colours supplied by the costumes and the lovely white flowers. The main set is a mausoleum complete with crypts bearing names of the deceased, stylistically rather reminiscent of the striking Willy Decker Nederlandse Opera Don Carlo I saw quite some years ago with Rolando Villazon and Amanda Roocroft.
Based on the names on the mausoleum crypts — which I had to look hard to decipher using my trusty binoculars, the setting has been moved from Renaissance Italy to the United States during the Civil War. This, of course, creates a set of problems with the storyline, which one has to more or less overlook. Despite the switched location and a few other idiosyncrasies, Stephen Lawless directed with a rather understated hand, very much middle-of-the-road, in keeping with the inherent romanticism of the work. One funny moment was Juliette snatching a flute of champagne from one of the serving ladies right in the middle of her Waltz. The extended denouement in Acts Four and Five was visually lovely. Various crypts in the mausoleum double as doors and windows for the balcony scene, a clever solution.
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In its first staging of the Gounod masterpiece, Santa Fe Opera fielded a dream cast, with tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez as the star-crossed lovers. The American pair has enchanted audiences the last few years as the ideal romantic stage couple. Not only are their voices beautiful, as husband and wife they are a fabulous looking pair. Imagine my shock when I read in The Daily Beast an interview Costello gave to journalist Shawn Milne, speaking about the breakup of his marriage.
So it was with some trepidation that I attended this Romeo et Juliette. I needn’t have worried. If I had not known beforehand about their breakup, I would never have guessed in a million years that they are no longer a couple. Their stage chemistry remained intact and their interactions totally believable, the extended death scene tugged at the heart strings. One can only imagine it wouldn’t be easy for them to create the illusion. Kudos to Costello and Perez for putting their artistry and their professionalism first. Bravi tutti!
As Romeo, Costello was in thrilling voice, especially in the big moments such as a knock ‘em dead “Ah! Lêve-toi soleil,” with his bright, clarion tenor and brilliant high notes. When he chose to use his mezza voce and in particular his hushed pianissimi in the quieter moments like the love duet, the effect was magical. Dramatically he fully embodied the character of Romeo, romantic, ardent, gentle, and heart felt. Soprano Ailyn Pérez was a sparkling Juliette; her rich, full lyric soprano matched Costello note for note. Perhaps she wasn’t quite warmed up in Act One; as a result, the coloratura in her Waltz wasn’t ideally clean, and her forte tended to be steely. After that hurdle, she settled down and sang flawlessly for the rest of the opera, with a particularly lovely Poison Aria. Generally speaking, both of them were at their best stylistically in the more tender moments of the several duets, with their lovely soft singing more preferable than the full-throttle fortissimos.
The rest of the cast was impressive. Canadian baritone Elliot Madore was a spitfire Mercutio, his robustly resonant tone a pleasure, not to mention the best sword fight I’ve seen in some time. I last heard him as Pelleas a year ago in Munich. His voice has darkened in the interim — I’d say it’s more a bass-baritone now in timbre, his “Mab, la reine des mensonges” full of swagger. Veteran bass Raymond Aceto was a sympathetic Frère Laurent, here found in an infirmary! Replacing the originally announced Denyce Graves as Gertrude was the fine young mezzo Deborah Nansteel. And I mustn’t forget mezzo Emily Fons, who was a terrific Cherubino in Toronto last season, here as Stefano. It’s one of those rather dramatically dispensable roles, but Fons made the most of her moment in the sun. Finally, a tip of my hat to the fresh, young voices in the Chorus, so important in this opera. Harry Bicket, who did such a great job conducting Maometto II at the COC, gave an impressive reading of the score, proving once again he is a lot more than a Baroque specialist.