‘Roméo et Juliette’ at Catholic University by Terry Byrne

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Budding love that is “star-crossed” with budding artistry is the magic potion that should move fine-arts lovers to flee their houses and partake in Catholic University’s School of Music’s succulent Roméo et Juliette. And quick, before it’s too late!

Cast of Roméo et Juliette.' Photo by Ed Pfueller.
Cast of Roméo et Juliette.’ Photo by Ed Pfueller.

This five-act opera by French composer Charles Gounod, sung in impeccable French and directed by intrepid master David Carl Toulson, might well be the raciest interpretation of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy since 1996’s film mounting of Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes — minus the gimmicks and modern redressing. “Mounting” is the operative word as the lovers mix it up during their Act 4 love duet in Juliette’s bedroom. Patrons suddenly become the blushing pilgrims. This critic was seated beside a collared priest and behind a fluently French family and even they were all a-titter.

And the “hands” theme is played to the hilt. (A libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré loosely translates classic Juliet’s “For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch” and Romeo’s responder “Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?”) Here, it’s ‘hands at first sight,’ as the pair teasingly reach out, barely touching, giving observers multiple chills. Whether the underlying cause is the glorious music or gumptious staging is anyone’s guess. Even in the balcony scene, Roméo (Rafealito Ross) reaches up on tippy-toe as Juliette (Chun-Ting Chao) kneels and bends down, still singing superbly. Later, there is so much fondling going on, one aches to cry out “Hands! Hands, Roméo!”

Seems it’s all part of Toulson’s grand design to unpack opera’s stuffiness and infuse it with an earthy soul.

Imagine how well-heeled French audiences experienced this lavish opus when it debuted in 1867: big booming overture, big ballroom scene, big costumes, big hair, big egos. Uncheck, uncheck, none of that applies here.

Catholic University of America’s textured 30-piece orchestra conducted by sprightly alumnus Adam Turner is ingenious omen No. 1 that you’ve never seen an opera so enticing. Fade in the villagers of Verona, ensconced behind a scrim under ghostly lighting, to deliver their premonitory prologue. They lay out the fateful story much as I-told-you-so elders of today — a vain attempt to divert impetuous youth from obvious poor choices. It takes a village, after all, to scar a child.

Then up pop Roméo and Juliette from a heap on the floor (they end where they began), like puppets startled to life, ever blameless because they can’t help themselves. Lighting Designer Robert Denton summons the haunted pair to separate spotlights on opposite sides of the stage — “go to the light!” — and they evaporate in a fog, as villagers move like chess pieces in a reverse bows pattern.

Before you can catch your breath, the “real” Verona, neither Shakespeare’s nor Cole Porter’s vision, bursts forth. Awash in festive glow, the simple set designed by Dominic Traino proves less is more. With minor adjustments, it serves as ballroom, bedroom, friar’s cell and tomb. We’re relieved to see no foliage, topiary or wasted trips to Michael’s arts and crafts store. Yet The Home Depot is imprinted on its symmetrical mirroring of two houses joined upstage by a single foyer. A mix of styles erases time and place: Tudor half-timbering, multi-paned French doors — unhinged as sentries stage right and left — beneath dual king-of-the-world balconies cinched by a tacky transom and four-level faux-marble platform.

Non-fussy costumes in mostly earth tones with pastel splotches, coordinated by Krissy Sneshkoff, suggest a muted Victorian painting, and the trim on the suits of Roméo and his mischievous band of party-crashers mimic the set’s “V” and parallel lines.

Entering in virginal-white princess-bride gown and crown, an angelic Juliette makes clear whose story this is. For centuries, Romeo has defined the archetypal lover boy — more in love with the idea of being in love than connecting with someone else. The firelight of this opera, though, is his brave and decisive heroine. While Gounod’s Roméo seems led, not to be crass, by his gonads and rash judgment, Juliette must choose not only to trust a shady clergyman and drink a potion that feigns death but, when things go awry, take matters into her own hands, with the fierce honor of Madama Butterfly, to seal the lovers’ fates.

Lest we forget: Shakespeare’s Juliet was only 13. And radiant Chao is a slice of heaven. Her glittering soprano rains crystal balls on stage, pinging playfully in Act I’s joyful aria to youth, the opera’s “hit” waltz made more convincing by Chao’s actual youth. While her contemporaries outside might be practicing melismatic riffs and runs to emulate pop idols, Chao exhibits vocalise as bulls-eye-aimed and ancient as birdsong. The energy of the busy ensemble neither distracts nor detracts; they are well-versed in acting and movement, populating their cramped compartment with ginger footing and sparkling vocals wrangled by Music Director Katerina Souvorova. A pure ode to giddiness.

As dean of music Grayson Wagstaff boasted beforehand: There are freshmen in named roles, which is a “rare and remarkable thing.” You can pick some out, a dropped chalice here, an awkward posture there, but mostly the blend is deceptively mature.

A note on casting. CUA distributed the top eight principal roles among 19 singers spanning four performances. No two shows are alike, so the bright talents showcased this night won’t necessarily be those you’ll be privileged to see. Seems a clever way not only to spare young singers’ instruments and offer judicious training opportunity but to ensure an evenly distributed audience, as different performers lure different fans.

Standouts in Friday’s cast, besides the enchanting Chao, include starburst Greg Gardner as a zesty, gymnastic Mercutio who breaks the bounds of opera as song-and-dance man, and Damian Savarino, whose divine bass infests Frère Laurent with villainous overtones. One realizes the priest is playing not only doctor but God with his sketchy plan to help the lovers escape judgment. Gounod’s commentary on the church must have alarmed more pious audiences. Yet here we are, on Catholic’s campus, in the shadow of the National Shrine in the week a new Pope is named, watching a priest answer a lovesick girl’s prayer to have it both ways. The irony of Juliette coming to him with her plea: “I’d rather die than live this deception!” and Laurent heaping deception upon deception as a miracle cure is the true tragedy: to err is human, and priests are human, too. Does he merely forget to let Roméo in on it?

Doe-eyed, stocky Ross takes a solid turn as Roméo with a dark, resonant tenor that grows on you. He is a fine actor who can make love to a garden wall as none before. Hoisting a robust range from a deep well, he zooms via elevator to limitless floors. But his persistent scooping undercuts the style of what should be clean singing overlaying French opera’s inherent schmaltziness.

Joseph Chee as the Duke is an Act 3 delight. He stands as a boy in superhero costume before opening his mouth to reveal a shuddering bass, reminiscent of American Idol Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery. Ted Kerrick’s Tybalt offers crisp diction and a credibility that singing is the only way he can say what he needs to say, even if his pitchy tenor strains at times. Oddly, he delivers his best singing while supine, near death.

The swordplay is not as gripping as it could be, but the notorious bedroom scene makes up for it in thrills (and groping). The lovers assume all positions, and an interesting twist in costuming puts Romeo in virginal-white silky nightshirt while Juliette takes charge in a vibrant soft-shell peach.

The orchestra takes center stage in this seduction, yanking heartstrings as Turner wrings every last tremolo from the strings section, especially lead cellists Fanny Nemeth-Weise and Nicole Boguslaw. But the pit star is flautist Troy Paolantonio, whose lark awakening fuels the lovers’ first spat, a humorous highlight.

Toulson uses humor throughout not in irreverence but rather as a reminder: We’ve all been there, and what up, dawg? Opera is boffo because it tells it like it is.

Cast of Roméo et Juliette.' Photo by Ed Pfueller.
Cast of Roméo et Juliette.’ Photo by Ed Pfueller.

Technically, the scene shift to the Capulet palace square takes too long, with patrons shifting in their seats as techies and Stephano (Maddy Curtis, as darling as Ellen DeGeneres in a jiggy pants role) lug in a prop statue twice her size. The supertitles began unfocused and were hard to read against normal stage lighting, but you’ll need no Cliffs Notes with this company’s exacting dose of acting; you might even forget they’re singing in French. The music is synced to cues of slammed doors and soap opera double takes, and moody lighting nurses the plot along — especially when Juliette learns Roméo’s identity, the forbidden fruit of Montague, and solemnly assesses her doom. Her shadow is projected as a conscience on the wall, another crystal ball in this virtuoso’s toolbox.

Political themes resonate in the nation’s capital: The manipulative priest rationalizes his meddling as a means to heal a deep-seated partisan rift. Even today, we may look to our youth to bridge what we see as insurmountable problems: moral deficits, a surplus of hate. When Roméo encounters Juliette chilling in her tomb, he takes time for ceremony, lighting a candle. And so, CUA offers up this tingling, fists-up production as a vigil to the future of the creative arts, clearly alive and well in D.C.

Running Time: Approximately 2.75 hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette plays tonight at 7:30 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM at The Catholic University of America’s Gilbert V. Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 319-4000, or order them online.