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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Further Thoughts on 'Roméo et Juliette'

Susan Vishmid (dancer), Emily Fons (Stéphano), and Beth Miller (dancer) in Roméo et Juliette
(Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016)

Charles T. Downey, Santa Fe Opera, part 1: Celebrating 60 with two rarities and Strauss (of course)
Washington Post, July 31

available at Amazon
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette, A. Gheorghiu, R. Alagna, J. Van Dam, S. Keenlyside, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, M. Plasson
(Warner, 2010)
The first time that Santa Fe Opera ever staged a Gounod opera was Faust in 2011. The second Gounod opera they have done, not surprisingly, is this season's Roméo et Juliette, heard on July 29, and it will likely be the last as Gounod's other operas rarely see the light of day. Stephen Lawless also directed this new production, and he made as much of a muddle of it as he did with Faust.

The French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré hews quite closely to Shakespeare's play in most respects, and there are some beautiful pieces in the score. Ailyn Pérez's voice has grown admirably, with a broad and confident tone that filled the house up to B-flat and optional high C at the end of Je veux vivre, Juliette's big waltz showpiece. Only above that, in the couple places where the role ranges up to high D in Act I, did the sound turn a little acidic. Occasional shortcomings of intonation were still present, but also much improved. Tenor Stephen Costello was cast as Roméo, likely before the two singers divorced, but he fell ill the day of this performance. His cover, Joseph Guerrero, was called in the afternoon of the performance and saved the show. Guerrero, who is in the Los Angeles Opera young artist program and took second prize at the Operalia Competition in 2014, had a beautiful sound, the vibrato tightly coiled but most not in an unpleasant way.

Raymond Aceto, who was a solid Hunding in the Washington National Opera Ring Cycle, was even stronger here as Frère Laurent. Others made less auspicious company debuts, with Tim Mix showing some charming stage presence but some limitations in volume as Capulet, and the handsome face of Elliot Madore not quite matched with a handsome voice as Mercutio. Apprentices were featured further down the cast list, none to great distinction, but Peter Scott Drackley, whom some Washington listeners may know, had a nice turn as Benvolio.

Even after the debacle of Stephen Lawless's staging of Faust in 2011, the director was allowed to do a similar sort of updating of the story into the 19th century, when the opera was composed. For Faust it was a sort of freak-show circus background, and here it was the American Civil War. (Get it? Because the two families are bitterly opposed to each other.) The Capulets and Montagues wore blue and red Civil War uniforms, respectively, and the ladies were costumed in huge hoop skirts and bonnets (sets and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis), although the director missed a golden opportunity to costume the exceptionally tall Soloman Howard's Duke as President Abraham Lincoln. The set backdrop in place for the entire opera was a curved mausoleum wall, with inscriptions on some of the panels, and the staging opened with the burial of the two lovers, casting the opera as a flashback (an idea somewhat undermined by having the chorus fling off their mourning black on stage as the Act I party scene began).

Other Reviews:

James M. Keller, Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’ at Santa Fe Opera (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 17)

John Stege, Death-Mark’d Love on Opera Hill: SFO’s Shakespearean 'liebestod' (Santa Fe Reporter, July 20)
Actually, for a while the concept almost worked -- Frère Laurent doubles as a surgeon in an infirmary -- or at least did not make me angry until we reached the end of the third act. That is where Roméo's page, Stéfano, sings my favorite aria in the opera, and in this case where Stéfano appeared in the guise of what, I guess, was a cantinière, just with a ridiculous fake mustache. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Lawless turned this scene into some sort of drag cabaret act, complete with choreography (created by Nicola Bowie) involving two supernumerary dancers (pictured above). Lawless scores double for directorial perversity by inserting dancers into this scene and in Act I, while ignoring the Act IV ballet that here, as in almost every other production of this opera, was cut.

At the podium Harry Bicket led a capable performance from the orchestra, long on loud brass and featuring dizzying chromatic runs from the woodwinds in the Queen Mab aria and ardent, balanced sound in the divisi cello sections. The highest marks go to fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, who marshaled the cast, chorus, and a team of acrobats in some of the more impressive sword fights we have seen in an opera.

This production continues through August 25 at Santa Fe Opera.

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