December 04, 2005


Gounod: Roméo et Juliette. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Presented at Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, December 2 and 4, 2005.

Virginia Opera’s productions have gotten so good that they can make mediocre operas seem exceptional. The company’s latest offering, of Charles Gounod’s 1867 Roméo et Juliette, is superb in every way.

Gounod’s work – the libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré – contains a fair number of scenes from the Shakespeare play on which it is based. But its sensibility is entirely different. Shakespeare’s work is about reconciliation through tragedy: the deaths of the young lovers end a multi-generational feud that has torn two families and a city apart. Gounod tells the story as a flashback, opening with a chorus of citizens from some time after that of Romeo and Juliet – a time of dullness, when people look back longingly to days of passion and intensity, as exemplified by the story of the young lovers. This undercuts Shakespeare’s purpose literally from the beginning of the opera.

Here is how Virginia Opera pulls in the audience so it doesn’t notice: the initial scene uses dark lighting, a stark setting and dull costumes, establishing a tone of tragedy to which the opera itself never quite rises. Before anyone can wonder about what that first chorus implies, we are swept into a brilliantly lit, bustling first scene of a party at the Capulets’ home – the start of the action proper. Stage director David Lefkowich, lighting designer Donald Thomas, scenery designer Peter Dean Beck, and artistic director and conductor Peter Mark grab the audience viscerally and never let go.

This is a marvelous experience, and one this opera sorely needs. It is the only one of Gounod’s 12 other than Faust that still gets occasional international performances, though Mireille remains popular in France. Gounod’s relentlessly bourgeois morality, exactly the sort of rigidity parodied so effectively by Offenbach, has the lovers not even singing together until after they are married (in their previous duets, they alternate lines). And the opera ends with them begging God to forgive them – “Lord, forgive us” is actually the work’s last line – presumably for their sin of suicide.

None of the opera’s flaws seems to matter here. The casting is excellent: Wei Huang as Juliet is a superstar in the making, with strength throughout her range, emotional connection to spare, top-notch acting ability, and a conviction that helps her make even the silliest elements of her role believable. Chi Liming makes a top-notch Romeo: intense and passionate, rough around the edges (and slightly so in his voice, which here works to his advantage), and thoroughly believable. Indeed, one aspect of the casting comes across as brilliant: having two Asian leads in a cast otherwise made up of Occidentals visually sets the lovers apart from their families and supporters instantaneously. There is nowhere they can possibly belong in this opera’s world except together.

Every supporting role is well cast. Jason Kaminski as Mercutio projects just the right mixture of impetuosity and flippancy, and his Queen Mab aria in Act I is a delight. Raymond Diaz keeps Frère Laurent right in the middle of Gounod’s conventional morality (one of the many plot holes: he marries the lovers to end the feud of their families, but then why does he forbid Juliet to acknowledge the marriage?). Michael Shell is all bluster and hot temper as Tybalt. Laurel Cameron in the trouser role of Stéphano does a wonderful job with her Act II taunting song that precipitates tragedy. Adriane Shelton as Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse, makes the most of a small role. The authority figures, Todd Robinson as Capulet and Scott Root as the Duke of Verona, are appropriately stately and oblivious.

But it is the overall presentation that ties everything together – as it should, but as opera productions often fail to do. In Act I, the silly waltz ditty that Juliet sings before meeting Romeo – a sort of G-rated Sempre libera – has Huang dancing energetically all over the stage. In contrast, as she and Romeo declare their love in the balcony scene, they move their hands slowly and very tentatively toward each other, with palpable yearning – and stop short of touching. The action helps distract the audience from the affecting but very conventional harmonies and from the fact that Gounod, as usual when he comes up with something effective, proceeds to milk the scene almost to death.

Elegant touches abound. Curtains are an important motif. In the introductory chorus, we see the lovers atop a stairway, and after the chorus, curtains close them off. Curtains reappear several times, being used both to conceal and reveal – again adding subtlety to an opera that otherwise lacks it. There are well-modulated lighting changes throughout, too – for instance, as Frère Laurent discusses the potion he will give to Juliet.

Gounod’s typical underpinnings are still there, for better and worse. The opera is tuneful and occasionally impassioned, though it rises only to the level of pathos, not tragedy. When Romeo says he will give up his name for Juliet, the orchestra launches into a trivial passage that goes nowhere. When the lovers discuss whether they are hearing the lark of day or nightingale of night as their wedding night ends, Gounod essentially goes through the whole scene twice – milking a nice effect again – and then brings the lark/nightingale image back in the final scene in the tomb.

The point is that this is by no means a great opera, but Virginia Opera makes it seem almost like one. Peter Mark’s company has gotten so good that it can afford to take chances outside the conventional operatic canon. To his credit, Mark clearly knows that: two of the four operas in the company’s next season will be works that are seldom performed. Bravo!

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