Star Crossed Lovers: Virginia Opera's Touring Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in Richmond
by William Thomas Walker
Fresh repertory given traditional treatment, combined with fresh young voices, made for a very satisfying afternoon of opera in Richmond's Landmark Theater on November 27. William Shakespeare's plays, in the original language or in translations, have been repeatedly mined as sources for librettos for operas, many of which are long forgotten. When New Grove II was issued, some 270 operas based on the Bard's scribblings had been composed. With works like Verdi's Otello and Falstaff among the few that have become standards, the failure rate is colossal. Charles François Gounod (1818-93) composed Roméo et Juliette in the late 1860s, using a heavily pruned text by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, derived from the French translation used at the Théâtre-Lyrique. The five acts follow Shakespeare's tragedy closely – Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is there, as is his curse on both houses and the lovers' disputing whether the lark calls. This being opera, Juliet awakens as Romeo dies so there is a wrenching "death duet." In America, Gounod's opera enjoyed its widest popularity in New Orleans and at the Metropolitan Opera House during the Grau régime, when it was given with French casts.
As the star-crossed lovers, the Virginia Opera Company showcased two outstanding singers from China. Chi Liming is an acclaimed tenor at the Shanghai Opera who was trained in China and overseas. He sang the role of Mario under Peter Mark's baton in last summer's first-ever Italian language production of Tosca in China. Soprano Wei Huang had received awards and considerable press as one of the three leading sopranos in Baz Luhrmann's new Broadway production of La Bohème. A graduate of Brooklyn College's Conservatory of Music, her official American operatic debut came last season when she sang Lui in Turandot for the Virginia Opera Company.
Sometimes tenors' voices are described in terms of a precious metal – such-and-such Italian tenor has a "golden" timbre, while so-and-so Spanish tenor has a "silver" patina. While Chi Liming's instrument may not be made of gold, it certainly has substantial silver in its alloy! His solidly-placed vocalism is effortlessly projected, whether at full dynamics or in hushed, floated lines. It has an immediate quality of warmth combined with a pleasing tone. He has considerable stage presence of the kind too seldom encountered. His diction throughout was superb – I was able to follow the French text closely. He convincingly portrayed the wide range and growth of Romeo's character.
Any reservations based on her Broadway stint or her diminutive stature vanished as Wei Huang's warm soprano voice readily filled the large (3667 seat) theater. She fearlessly attacked high notes, hitting them on dead center, every time. The radiant singer-actress readily encompassed Juliet's full emotional range from giddy adolescence to the devastated lover. It is ironic that the most famous aria, "Je veux vivre dans ce rêve qui m'enivre," was added to the opera by the composer to satisfy the original prima donna who sang the role. Its tone is at odds with Juliet's character, but its catchy waltz rhythm makes it a sure-fire showpiece that Huang fully exploited.
Gounod's opera abounds in an extraordinary number of duets for the lovers. The growth of the lovers' relationship is reflected in the four major duets, ranging from the formal madrigal-like first one, "Ange adorable," to the seamless blending found in the finale of the tomb scene, "Console-toi, pauvre âme." These are in addition to some very fine solo arias for each lead.
Necessary compression to create a manageable libretto deprived Mercutio of many of his humors, but the critical "Mab, la reine des mensonges" is intact. This production benefited from agile baritone Jason Kaminski, whose voice readily negotiated Gounod's quicksilver score. (Berlioz set the Queen Mab speech even better than Gounod, but not alas in an opera!)
One of the pleasures of being a CVNC reviewer has been the opportunity to chronicle the growth of A.J. Fletcher Institute graduates from the North Carolina School of the Arts and their impact upon regional and national opera productions. Featured as the hot-headed Tybalt was tenor and NCSA alumnus Michael Shell, whose voice has a pleasing timbre and whose athletic flair was evident during the vigorous sword fight. The "pants role" of the trouble-making Montague page Stéphano was taken by mezzo-soprano Laurel Cameron, who brought out the cheeky impertinence of the youth whose insulting songs start the fatal fracas that leads to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. This character is not in Shakespeare's original play.
The rest of the cast gave solid performances with all the confidence the run's multiple performances engendered. Baritone Raymond Diaz had a sufficient bass extension to handle the heavier and lower range of the role of Friar Lawrence. Listed as a basso-cantante, Todd Robinson brought a full and warm sound to Juliet's father, Capulet. It's too bad that so much of the bawdy musings of Juliet's Nurse were cut by the librettists, but mezzo-soprano Adriane M. Shelton fleshed out what was left of Gertrude's part. Baritone Michael Redding sang Gregorio and tenor Michael Dailey, Benvolio. Baritone Scott Root brought proper "gravitas" to the role of the Duke of Verona, and baritone Wes Mason essayed Paris.
Peter Mark conducted with a fine flair for French style; he was sensitive to color and alert to nuances of dynamics and tempos. Ensemble between the stage and the pit was flawless. For this production, members of the Virginia Symphony served as the orchestra. There were numerous fine solos, especially for the woodwinds, clarinet, and oboe. Divided cellos were delightful in the opening of Act IV, depicting the lovers alone in Juliet's room. The fine chorus was well prepared by Joe Walsh.
In an era when jarring updatings of operas are commonplace, the dramatic staging of this opera in its proper period – 14th-century Verona – was refreshing. Director David Lefkowich marshaled his forces well. Extras had meaningful business to create the feeling of – for example – a masked ball or activity in a public square, but there was never so much action as to draw attention away from the main focus of each scene. Lefkowich has a well-earned reputation for his fight choreography, and this was very evident in the success of the multiple duels in Act II, s.2.
The costumes, designed by Robert Perdziola and belonging to Opera Theater of St. Louis, were outstanding. Three large two-story double-sided unit sets on rollers allowed for rapid changes and depicted a wide variety of locations, including the hall of the Capulets, the Capulet garden with its balcony, the square before the Capulet's house, Juliet's bedroom, and the Capulet family tomb. All of this was effectively lighted by Assistant Lighting Director Kenneth Steadman.
The good French translation was easily read as it was projected above the stage using Digitext SuperTitles. This is much more satisfactory than the various systems used by most of the other opera companies that I regularly review.