CHARLES-FRANÇOIS GOUNOD (1818 – 1893): Roméo et Juliette, CG 9—Jonathan Boyd (Roméo), Sarah Joy Miller (Juliette), Kimberly Sogioka (Stéphano), Kevin Langan (Frère Laurent), Efraín Solís (Mercutio), Brian Arreola (Tybalt), Susan Nicely (Gertrude), Ashraf Sewailam (Le comte Capulet), Eric Loftin (Le comte Pâris), Andrew McLaughlin (Grégorio), Martin Bakari (Benvolio), Keith Brown (Le duc de Vérone); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Bernard Uzan, Director and Production Design; Michael Baumgarten, Production, Lighting, and Projection Designs; Kara Wooten, Ph.D., Fight Director; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designs; A. T. Jones and Sons, Inc., Costume Designs; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Saturday, 30 January 2016]
When William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, opera in the form typified by the works of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini was in its infancy. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, now widely though not universally acknowledged as the earliest known work recognizable as an opera in the modern sense, was first performed less than two decades before Shakespeare’s death, and the operas of Claudio Monteverdi, like Peri a close contemporary of the English playwright, influenced the development of Italian opera in the Seventeenth Century as powerfully as Shakespeare’s plays propelled writing for the English stage. Whether Shakespeare was musically inclined is unknown, but his characteristic iambic pentameter undeniably possesses an inherent melodiousness. This, combined with the psychological perspicacity of his depictions of the aspects of humanity that he brought to life in London’s theatres, makes Shakespeare’s dramas uncommonly fertile fodder for operatic treatment. From Francesco Bianchi’s La morte di Cesare, premièred in Venice in 1788, to Thomas Adès’s Twenty-First-Century masterpiece The Tempest, Shakespeare’s plays have inspired an astounding array of works spanning virtually the entire stylistic spectrum of opera. A pair of operas could hardly be more different than Rossini’s and Verdi’s settings of Otello, but they share a genuine dedication to translating the poetry of Shakespeare’s iconic play into music of equal sentimental impact. If Rossini succeeded in this aim only in his music for Desdemona, Verdi arguably produced a score that is a paragon of the art of setting a Shakespeare text—in this case, superbly adapted by Arrigo Boito—to music. In its very different way, so, too, is Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Jules Barbier’s and Michel Carré’s libretto for the opera having been justifiably praised as an exceptionally faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s play at the time of the work’s première at the Théâtre-Lyrique Impériale du Châtelet in Paris on 27 April 1867. Owing in no small part to the espousal of Hector Berlioz, whose symphonie dramatique Roméo et Juliette was first performed in 1839, Shakespeare was as revered in Nineteenth-Century France as Corneille, Molière, Racine, Voltaire, and Hugo, a reality of which Gounod, Barbier, and Carré were keenly aware. It is hardly surprising that English critics, de facto guardians of their literary heritage, found much to criticize when Roméo et Juliette reached London later in 1867, with the legendary Adelina Patti as Juliette, but it is intriguing—and, admittedly, amusing—to note that Gounod’s opera was unfavorably compared as a Shakespearean homage to Nicola Vaccai’s now largely-forgotten [except for its celebrated final scene, a favorite of Maria Malibran] 1825 Giulietta e Romeo, the libretto for which, like that of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, was not even derived from Shakespeare! Gounod was taken to task for composing a score that was dismissed as nothing more than an extended duet for the title couple, but, the complications of its drama notwithstanding, are the interactions between its hero and heroine not also the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Directed by Bernard Uzan and framed by Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and projections with the blend of imagination and insight absent from so many productions not just of Roméo et Juliette but of all the works that enliven the world’s stages, Opera Carolina’s new production, soon to also be seen at Virginia Opera, Toledo Opera, Opera Grand Rapids, and Lyric Opera Baltimore, excelled precisely as Gounod’s music and Shakespeare’s drama demand: in placing Roméo and Juliette at the center of the opera’s psychological journey. In details large and small, on the stage and in the pit, this was a Roméo et Juliette that kindled a suggestion that the Place du Châtelet runs through Charlotte.
It is indicative of the affection that Roméo et Juliette inspired in the first few decades after its première that the opera entered the repertory of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in April 1884, during the company’s inaugural season, albeit in Italian and on tour in Philadelphia. The opera subsequently opened the MET’s 1891 – 1892 Season with a phenomenal cast headed by the brothers Jean de Reszke and Édouard de Reszke as Roméo and Frère Laurent and Emma Eames—the MET’s first Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Charlotte in Werther, Alice Ford in Falstaff, Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s eponymous Iris, and Ero in Luigi Mancinelli’s forgotten Ero e Leandro!—as Juliette and, remarkably, was revived to launch the 1894 – 1895, 1895 – 1896, 1899 – 1900, 1900 – 1901, and 1906 – 1907 Seasons. The star-crossed lovers portrayed by Jean de Reszke and Dame Nellie Melba, Beniamino Gigli and Lucrezia Bori, and Jussi Björling and Bidú Sayão are rightly legendary, and it was as Juliette that Geraldine Farrar débuted at the MET in 1906. The stylistically insensitive but vocally refulgent Roméo of Franco Corelli looms large in the opera’s history in the second half of the Twentieth Century, contrasting markedly with the more refined Roméos of Nicolai Gedda, Alain Vanzo [never heard at the MET, unfortunately], and Alfredo Kraus. Extending this legacy into the Twenty-First Century, Opera Carolina’s production exuded respect for Gounod’s score, the team of artists performing it, and the audience gathered to enjoy their endeavors. The evocative juxtapositions of fantasy and realism in the production team’s set and projection designs, the rich tones of A. T. Jones and Sons’ costumes, and the unfailingly becoming wigs and makeup by Martha Ruskai credibly situated the drama in Fourteenth-Century Verona as stipulated by original source, librettists, and composer, compellingly depicting the isolation imposed upon Roméo and Juliette by the belligerent environment in which their love somehow takes root.
The grandeur conjured on the stage was enhanced by the Gallic sophistication that emanated from the orchestra pit. Without mimicking any of their individual styles, Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena paced a performance of Roméo et Juliette—the score that was the vehicle for his début with Opera Carolina in 2001—that sporadically brought to mind celebrated traversals of the score led by Emil Cooper, Jules Gressier, and Jean Fournet. Like his conducting of Gounod’s Faust in Charlotte in 2008, Meena’s handling of this performance of Roméo et Juliette was attentive to the score’s nuances, reveling in the exuberance of the Ball Scene, luxuriating in the romance of the Balcony Scene, and mixing pained emoting with restraint in the opera’s final scene, but there were conspicuous lacks of cohesion among scenes and cumulative momentum. Using an edition that bizarrely restructured Gounod’s five acts into two [Opera Carolina’s website suggested that the production presented the opera in four acts, but the playbill specified two—and then the break curiously did not correspond with that indicated in the printed synopsis: for the sake of clarity for those readers not in Charlotte whose acquaintance is with Gounod’s five-act structure as published by Choudens, references in this review adhere to the five-act form], Meena nonetheless achieved musical and sentimental equilibrium on an impressive scale, managing orchestral textures and layers of ensemble with concentration that gave the singers the support that they needed without downplaying the music’s moments of Wagnerian largesse. Occasionally, the inconsistent energy of the conductor’s work threatened to break the silken thread of delicacy that envelops even the score’s most ironclad pages, and there were numerous instances in which tempi were sluggish. Under his baton, however, the playing of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was competitive with the sounds produced by the world’s foremost opera house orchestras. Gounod’s music is often damned with the faint praise of being said to predominantly be pretty. Indeed, the music in Roméo et Juliette is frequently very pretty, but is that really a quality to be condemned? There are passages of great difficulty in the orchestral parts of Roméo et Juliette, and the Charlotte Symphony musicians executed them splendidly. Individually—the clarinet solo that prefaces Roméo’s ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil!’ and the chamber-like writing for small groups of strings were fantastically played—and in ensemble, the musicians reacted to Meena’s leadership with shared vision, acquitting Gounod of charges of being a composer of tuneful but mostly uninspired music.
Whether making merry at the Capulets’ ball, perpetrating the street violence between the rival families, or reacting to Roméo’s banishment by the Duke, the choristers in Roméo et Juliette are, en masse, a character in their own right. In this performance, that character was entrusted to performers as committed to singing well as any of the principals. Building on their strong showings in Turandot and Fidelio, the ladies and gentlemen of the Opera Carolina Chorus ably partnered their colleagues in the pit by offering singing that challenged the performances by any of the world’s preeminent opera houses’ choruses. The choristers’ training resonated in every bar in this performance, the balances among parts often virtually ideal without the ensemble seeming transformed into an over-sized church choir. In the opening chorus of what Gounod and his librettists, following Shakespeare’s example, designated as the opera’s brief Prologue, ‘Vérone vit jadis deux familles rivales,’ the choristers proclaimed the familiar introduction of the feuding families and their beleaguered offspring with ominous depth of tone. At the Capulet ball in Act One, they voiced ‘L’heure s’envole joyeuse et folle’ with the carefree zeal of people ready for a good party. Their exclamation of ‘Ah! qu’elle est belle!’ upon catching sight of Juliette was appropriately filled with awe, but the ladies infused their singing of ‘Nargue! nargue des censeurs’ with darker implications. Sobriety also defined the choristers’ account of ‘Mystérieux et sombre’ in Act Two. The choral singing was at its peak when it counted most, in the Act Three finale. Every singer on stage contributed to a rousing performance of ‘Ô jour de deuil!’ that sparked a spiritual conflagration that was not extinguished until the curtain fell on Juliette dead in Roméo’s arms. Choral singing is a weakness in many performances of Roméo et Juliette: in Opera Carolina’s performance, it was a decided strength. Regrettably, the audience seemed not to realize that the chorus’s curtain call at the close of Gounod’s Act Three marked the choristers’ last appearance on stage: the tepid applause surely cannot have reflected the audience’s assessment of the choral singing.
Oh, Nurse: Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely (center) as Gertrude with her Capulet tormenters in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]
Opera Carolina’s Roméo et Juliette drew from a deep well of talent in casting supporting rôles. Donning the elaborate habit of the stern Duc de Vérone, bass-baritone Keith Brown articulated ‘Eh quoi? toujours du sang!’ in the Act Three finale with easy command of the compass of his part, resonantly sentencing Roméo to exile and futilely attempting to reconcile Capulet and Montague pères. Baritone Andrew McLaughlin’s bronze-voiced Grégorio and tenor Martin Bakari’s live-wire Benvolio were vibrant characterizations, the latter’s singing of ‘Sa blessure est mortelle!’ in the Act Three finale escalating the tension of the scene. As le comte Pâris, bass-baritone Eric Loftin potently portrayed the character’s wide-eyed wonder at the opulence of Capulet’s ball and Juliette’s beauty with a nobly-phrased ‘Richesse et beauté tout ensemble sont les hôtes de ce palais!’ in Act One. Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely provided much-needed moments of levity with her effervescent portrayal of Juliette’s nurse Gertrude. She was delightful in her Act One scene with Juliette, breathlessly singing ‘Respirez un moment!’ with unerring comedic timing. Accosted by the roving Capulets, Nicely’s Gertrude safeguarded her matronly honor with hilarious seriousness. The mezzo-soprano’s best singing was done in the two quartets in which Gertrude participates, first joining with Juliette, Roméo, and Frère Laurent following the young lovers’ nuptials and then with Juliette, Capulet, and Frère Laurent in the scene in which her father informs the already-married Juliette that she is to wed Pâris. The quality of Nicely’s vocalism did not always parallel her histrionic dynamism, but she lifted the spirits of every scene in which she appeared. Though Opera Carolina’s production made her part seem even more superfluous than is sometimes the case, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka dispatched Stéphano’s chanson ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’ attractively, negotiating its triplets and the top C in the cadenza with aplomb.
There was a time not so long ago, a time still remembered by many opera lovers, when opera houses fostered genuine troupes of singers rather than being the impersonal arrivals and departures lounges they have now largely become. Opera Carolina’s roster has an ensemble artist of the first order in tenor Brian Arreola, an accomplished singing actor who, among many lauded portrayals for the company, graced Opera Carolina’s recent productions of Verdi’s Nabucco and Beethoven’s Fidelio with world-class performances as Ismaele and Jacquino. He added another well-drawn portrait to his gallery with his bellicose Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette. He launched Act One with a bright-toned ‘Eh! bien? cher Pâris!’ and sang strongly in the Act One finale, in which the character’s rabble-rousing nature was fully revealed. In the Duel Scene in Act Three, Arreola proved marvelously balletic in his combats with both Mercutio and Roméo, and he exhibited rare perfection of the elusive art of dying on stage. In truth, Gounod’s declamatory music for Tybalt gives an artist of Arreola’s abilities limited opportunities for lyrical expression [he would undoubtedly prove a poetic, euphonious Roméo], but the tenor’s voice rang out excitingly, and his blade-to-the-throat acting provided the oppressive danger that must permeate a production of Roméo et Juliette if the opera’s tragedy is to be on a par with that of Shakespeare’s play.
Mortal enemies: Tenors Brian Arreola as Tybalt (left) and Jonathan Boyd as Roméo (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]
Acclaimed for assignments as diverse as the Pirate King in Lyric Opera San Diego’s rollicking 2010 presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut The Pirates of Penzance and the black-hearted assassin Sparafucile in New Zealand Opera’s 2012 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, Cairo-born bass Ashraf Sewailam introduced himself to Charlotte with a flinty but not unfeeling impersonation of Capulet, Juliette’s father. In Act One, his robust voicing of ‘Soyez les bienvenus, amis, dans ma maison!’ and ‘Allons! jeuenes gens!’ was intermittently compromised by weakness at the top of the range, but his singing in later scenes was unfailingly secure in all registers. Looking like a figure who stepped out of a Holbein portrait, Sewailam’s Capulet demanded justice for the slain Tybalt in tones of granitic solidity, and, unaware of his daughter’s union with Roméo, he informed Juliette of his accedence to Tybalt’s final desire for her betrothal and imminent marriage to Pâris with a concerted effort at lessening her dismay that only gradually metamorphosed into an angry insistence upon obedience. Sewailam’s vocal and dramatic representation of unbending paternal sovereignty placed a character often on the fringes at the nucleus of the drama in this performance of Roméo et Juliette.
After exchanging a few lines of recitative with his friend Roméo, Mercutio takes charge of Act One with the familiar Ballade de la Reine Mab, ‘Mab, la reine des mensonges.’ In this performance, baritone Efraín Solís took charge of the Ballade with an outpouring of soaring, virile vocalism, scaling the heights of the music with absolute confidence. Even this inadequately prepared the audience for Solís’s galvanizing singing in the Duel Scene. Sparring with Arreola’s Tybalt with feline prowess, the baritone proved a swashbuckler worthy of Douglas Fairbanks films. Solís delivered Mercutio’s famous ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ aggressively but sadly, his character sensitive even as his life was ending to the impact of the interminable violence on people he loves. Solís’s Mercutio allied swaggering machismo with refreshing subtlety, but it was the quality of Solís’s singing that truly exhilarated.
Anyone who heard his Timur in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Puccini’s Turandot cannot have been surprised by the humor, sincerity, and sonorous authority of bass Kevin Langan’s depiction of Frère Laurent, Shakespeare’s benevolent friar whose involvement in Roméo’s and Juliette’s predicament both engenders their greatest joy and precipitates their eventual tragedy. Langan sang ‘Eh! quoi! le jour à peine se lève et le sommeil te fuit?’ eloquently, and, in the trio in which Laurent clandestinely joins Juliette and Roméo in matrimony, his expansively-phrased ‘Dieu, qui fit l’homme à ton image’ radiated kindness and magnanimity. He anchored the subsequent quartet with Juliette, Roméo, and Gertrude with velvet-cloaked power. In the scene following Capulet’s announcement of Juliette’s engagement to Pâris, Langan reacted with heartbreak and compassion to Juliette’s longing for death. Giving her the potion intended to liberate her from her suffering and reunite her with Roméo, he became the father that Capulet was incapable of being, the natural father’s judgment clouded by insurmountable violence. Langan’s was the most distinguished singing of the evening, and his Frère Laurent was the poignant epicenter of the performance.
Man and wife: Tenor Jonathan Boyd as Roméo (left) and soprano Marie-Eve Munger as Juliette (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, January 2016 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]
Tenor Jonathan Boyd was a hardworking, handsome, and earnestly heroic Roméo whose interpretation of the rôle stopped laudably short of emotional excess. Gamboling across the stage with libidinously boyish athleticism, he seemed endearingly out of place in Act One, both as an intruder in Capulet’s house and as a hapless voyager lured by the siren song of Juliette’s beauty and demeanor. The conversational bite that Boyd brought to his singing of recitatives was most welcome, and the fluidity of line with which he intoned ‘Ange adorable, ma main coupable profane, en l’osant toucher’ in the Madrigal with Juliette was beautifully maintained. In Act Two, his awestruck ‘Ô nuit! sous tes ailes obscures abrite-moi!’ was a suitably exultant prelude to Roméo’s widely-known cavatine, ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil!’ Boyd manfully braved the number’s difficulties, applying every ounce of his technique to preserving legato. The three top B♭s did not come effortlessly, but the singer’s intonation was steady. Taking the nasalized vowels of French into consideration and noting that the tenor’s diction was, on the whole, quite good, the voice often sounded forced and pinched, particularly in and above the passaggio. Nevertheless, his stylish use of falsettone to achieve a diminuendo on the final B♭ was admirable. In the first duet with Juliette, Boyd’s impassioned ‘Ô nuit divine!’ throbbed with newly-minted eroticism that persisted into Act Three, his part in the trio with Juliette and Laurent in the Wedding Scene conveying irrepressible joy. Roméo’s elation quickly turned to horror and rage in the Act Three finale, Boyd detonating ‘Allons! tu ne me connais pas, Tybalt, et ton insulte est vaine!’ with the force of a thunderbolt. His despondent, desperate singing of ‘Ah! jour de deuil et d’horreur et d’alarmes’ was telling evidence of the extent to which this Roméo, stained with both Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s blood, matured from a optimistic lover into a tragic hero. Though on pitch and undeniably exciting, Boyd’s interpolated top C was an error in judgement: what the tone added to the scene was outweighed by the risk to the singer’s vocal health. In the Act Four duet with Juliette, Boyd caressed the melodic line in his hypnotically-phrased ‘Nuit d’hyménée!’ From his first notes in ‘C'est là! Salut! tombeau sombre et silencieux!’ at the start of Act Five until his poison did its work, Boyd’s Roméo followed his fate wherever it led. Courageous even in the throes of death, his foremost care was Juliette’s wellbeing. Roméo’s music sometimes taxed Boyd perilously, but he shrank from none of the part’s demands, depicting an impetuous but deeply-feeling young man whose path to happiness wound through snares from which he could not escape.
To beamingly youthful soprano Sarah Joy Miller fell the unenviable task of assuming the heroine’s gossamer mantle when the scheduled Juliette was taken ill after the production’s opening night. Making her entrance in Act One blindfolded, she sang ‘Ecoutez! ecoutez! C'est le son des instruments joyeux’ charmingly despite faltering in her first excursion into the upper register. Juliette’s F-major waltz arietta ‘Je veux vivre dans le rêve qui m’enivre’ is arguably the opera’s most famous number, and Miller sang it captivatingly, with secure top B♭s and sparkling fiorature. She did not quite reach the top D to which one roulade takes the line, but her performance of the piece was otherwise commendably assured. She voiced ‘Calmez vos craintes!’ in the Madrigal with Roméo pointedly, and her lovely timbre shone in the din of the Act One finale. Appearing on the fateful balcony in Act Two, Miller offered an ‘Hélas! moi, le haïr!’ that exuded girlish innocence and the awakening of unfamiliar passions. In the duet with Roméo that followed, Miller notably gained confidence, her vocalism growing ever more focused and lustrous. She joined Boyd, Langan, and Nicely in alluringly bel canto performances of the trio and quartet in Act Three before being crushed in the finale by the shock and dismay of seeing her cousin felled by a wound inflicted by her husband. Gently contradicting Roméo’s interpretations of the harbingers of dawn in their Act Four duet ‘Nuit d’hyménée!’ drew from the soprano sounds of radiant purity that contrasted unmistakably with her despair when reminded by Capulet of Tybalt’s dying directive that she should marry Pâris. Robbed by Laurent of the dagger intended to end her tribulations, Miller’s Juliette resolved to bow to the friar’s well-meaning advice in the often-cut aria ‘Amour ranime mon courage.’ Miller’s strong-willed singing of the aria, its trills and top Cs utterly secure and employed as dramatic as well as vocal devices, provided the zenith of her reading of Juliette and the dramatic climax of the performance as a whole. Miller and Boyd blended their voices seductively in Act Five, the soprano’s disarmingly simple statement of ‘Où suis-je? Ô vertige!’ lending Juliette’s final moments a touching sense of dedication, her physical fragility giving way to ethereal fortitude. On the whole, Miller’s potential seemed greater than her actual performance, but she brushed aside the adverse circumstances of her appearance, conquered the nerves those circumstances are likely to have induced, and sang with undaunted poise and professionalism.
Opera is an adventure that in ways seen and unseen by audiences epitomizes Charles Dickens’s frequently-quoted words from the opening page of A Tale of Two Cities, an art form that can in a single performance be both the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of times in opera is undoubtedly when a production’s leading lady succumbs to illness, but Opera Carolina’s Roméo et Juliette represented the ‘show must go on’ mentality at its best. Saturday evening’s performance displayed many of the qualities necessary to fashioning a memorable Roméo et Juliette, but what was missing despite diligent, thoughtful efforts from cast, chorus, orchestra, and production team was heart. Beautiful as the stage tableaux and music-making often were, one ultimately had to take on faith that one’s tears should flow for Juliette and her Roméo.