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Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, roles to be heard and seen

The highly touted Met R&J with Netrebko and Alagna, 2007

At the press conference last week to announce the Metropolitan Opera’s new season, I met someone from Philadelphia who has already reviewed the Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Academy of Music that I will review after seeing today. We’re comparing notes tomorrow.  

Though I’m disinclined to read others’ reviews first, by contrast, I am very much inclined to do a little research before any opera I see. Of course I know Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet well–I was a high school English teacher for years–but I have never seen the opera and that, as they say, is another ball of wax.  

I do have one bias going into this production and that is it’s difficult for me to embrace 40-something actors or singers playing Romeo or Juliet. They are, as Shakespeare wrote them, supposed to be young teens. Why else would these two fall in love so quickly and rush headlong into life-and-death decisions without thinking them through?  

Do you remember what it was like to be fifteen and totally head over heels for someone? It’s almost painful to have your heart so full of love for someone. All your emotions are amplified as a result of this terrible new burden of love that has overwhelmed all your senses.  So, I already know I will need to see that level of passion between two actors who aren’t so far removed from teenagehood to take this production seriously even if they aren’t teenagers. I do realize that few teenagers are neither vocally equipped nor sufficiently developed for the demands of singing either of these roles but they have to project youthful energies to be believable.  

As regards Gounod‘s opera, one of the prevailing views is that Romeo and Juliet (and every other Gounod opera) are thin shadows compared to his Faust. I prefer to review the work I’m seeing rather than compare it to his masterwork. And according to Bachtrack, there are nearly as many productions of R&J (27) as Faust (29) worldwide, so perhaps it is improving in critical and popular favor–most likely because of strong, highly visible productions by major houses.  

Gounod’s R&J is a five-act grand opera which follows Shakespeare’s tragedy very closely (apart from adding a character Stephano in the fight scene) in construction as well as in dialogue.  

Since the highlights of the score are the four love duets between the star-crossed lovers–an unprecedented number of tenor-soprano duets in one opera–the burden of the show’s success rests on those singing the title roles.  

Some of the other portions of the opera I have high expectations for include Romeo’s cavatina “Ah! leve-toi, soleil,” Mercutio’s Queen Mab ballade,  the Act III confrontation between the Montagues and the Capulets, and Juliet’s famous waltz “Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve,” which was coincidentally OperaPulse’s Aria of the Week and Thursday night throwdown between Angela Gheorghiu and  Montserrat Caballe (yes, an unusual role for her).  

I really enjoy this version of “Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve”  by Diana Damrau–it encapsulates Juliet’s youthful exuberance and imagination. Damrau may not be a teenager (because what teen can sing lyric coloratura?), but she certainly is fresh and dewy–believable as Juliet (and in beautiful voice). What do you think? Is Damrau a believable Juliet and a soaring Juliet–musically speaking?  

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is yours an opera weekend?

This Sunday, I’m seeing Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s  new production of Gounod‘s Romeo and Juliet, which sets the Capulets and the Montagues as major contemporary fashion houses. It will incorporate costumes conceived by students studying fashion design in the Philadelphia area. Click here to see the student designs.

I’m anxious to see if this novel premise supports the tragic narrative arc of the opera.

How about you? Will this weekend be a live opera weekend?

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, Live opera performance, North American Opera