By Erin Fleming
Lyric Opera of Chicago contributes to the citywide 400th anniversary commemoration of Shakespeare’s death with its stunning production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, presented in conjunction with Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a yearlong international arts festival celebrating the abiding appeal and relevance of the playwright.
Lovers of the Bard and musical theater alike who wonder from time to time about attending an opera should make 2016 the year to go, and Romeo et Juliette the opera to see.
What makes this a great choice for a newcomer to the genre is that the story is so well-known, so well-suited for opera and so easy to follow. There are more than 200 operas based on Shakespeare, more than that of any other dramatist, and at least 10 are versions of Romeo and Juliet. It makes sense: the epic love story is stock full the big themes that opera loves: forbidden romance, youthful indiscretion, untimely loss, feuding families, dire circumstances, meddling clergy.
The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre stays close to the language and meter of Shakespeare’s play, and is believed to be based upon Victor (Les Misérables) Hugo’s translation of Shakespeare’s script into French. The five-act story is presented in two halves, with the primary difference being that the libretto focuses on the romance at the expense of eliminating some of Shakespeare’s subplots and minor characters.
The final scene, for example, ends with only the two lovers fatally entwined in death, without the inclusion of the families and the community of souls that opens the show. There are projected English subtitles, but, it turns out, sung French is emotionally expressive and fairly easy for non-speakers to follow (unlike sung German where everything sounds like the angry recitation of Ikea instructions). Gounod’s score serves the dramatic action in a naturalistic way rather than being an abstract companion to the story.
Another reason opera novices will enjoy this production is the direction by Bartlett Sher, an internationally acclaimed director of theatre, musicals and opera who comes to Chicago after recently helming award-winning revivals of The King and I at Lincoln Center and Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.
Sher masterfully stages swordfights, intimate love scenes and crowd scenes of 50 or more players with an almost cinematic pace: the action continues uninterrupted, even through scene changes, which are executed by cast members in full view of the audience. The dramatic Kabuki-inspired opening pantomime immediately engages patrons. The curtain rises silently on Michael Yeargan’s stark, imposing Verona town square; the cold, grey towers and balconies rendered forebodingly tomb-like with Jennifer Tipton’s eerily stark lighting. The entire cast enters, one by one, assembling to sing the prologue. This simple device effectively presences the two families and the greater community, gathered to recount a sad tale of love and loss. The emotional power of that first chorus sets the tone for the inevitable tragedy to unfold.
Along the way, our heartstrings are guided by the gorgeous music of Charles Gounod, considered to be the pioneer of the then-new school of French lyricism, and known as the “composer of love.” His compositional style is characterized by sweet, elegant, romantic melodies and soaring, harmonious orchestration. Susanna Phillips’ soprano and Joseph Calleja’s tenor are both gorgeous as they take solo turns, their voices flirting with each other at the Capulet’s party, building romantic tension until joining together in beautiful harmony, symbolizing the tantalizing infatuation of young love.
Romeo et Juliette is distinguished by four such romantic duets, the most touching of which is sung on the morning following the clandestine wedding, as the newlyweds delay their separation by debating whether it is the lark or the nightingale that sings outside the window.
In the pants role (female actor in man’s clothing) of Stephano, Romeo’s page (a non-canonical character invented for the opera), Marianne Crebassa steals the scene with her charismatic Act 3 aria, inspiring a well-earned audience reaction even while instigating the fatal rage of Tybalt (Jason Slayden).
Other musical highlights include Mercutio’s odd “Queen Maab” aria, whimsically delivered with great swashbuckling bravado by Joshua Hopkins, and the perfect Soprano-Mezzo-Tenor-Bass quartet between Romeo, Juliette, Nurse Gertrude (Deborah Nansteel) and Friar Laurence (Christian Van Horn) in Laurence’s chamber. But it is the full power of the ensemble scenes featuring the entire cast that most highlights the amazing work of Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, Chorus Master Michael Black and Fight Choreographer B. H. Barry.
Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes are updated from the Renaissance to the 18th century, a choice which was informed by the designer’s desire to reflect a certain decadence in the society as a contrast to the purity of the star-crossed lovers. The colors and textures are rich and saturated: the Capulet ladies saunter in velvety, jewel-toned capes and gowns, the Montague youths leap about in long leathery dusters and pirate-like headscarves—street toughs ready to rumble. Juliette’s first entrance in a glittery, Disney-princess pink party dress instantly sets her apart from her family and surroundings; she is the picture of youth and innocence.
For those whose familiarity with opera is limited to Phantom of the Opera or Bugs Bunny, the Lyric offers assistance in a variety of ways to enhance the opera-going experience. Jesse Gram, Lyric’s Audience Education Manager, provides excellent context during the free half-hour talks before every performance. Aside from the cast list and bios, the program playbills include a detailed synopsis of the action in each scene, historical background about the composer and production and insightful articles written by the behind-the-scenes creative team explaining their job descriptions and contributions to the current show. Digital copies of the program are available for download from the Lyric’s website here, along with commentary, interviews, music samples and articles. The Lyric has truly invested in the idea that an informed audience is an entertained audience.
It’s easy to see why Romeo et Juliette was an immediate and spectacular success in 1867 and continues to be regarded as a jewel of French lyrical opera. This nuanced production of a timeless story has something to offer every theatergoer, whether they be a fan of classic Shakespeare, innovative staging, beautiful music or just simply, love.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Romeo et Juliette,” performed in French with projected English translation, through March 19, at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Tickets, starting at $20, are available by phone at (312) 827-5600 or online here.