Few stories have been as revised, re-told and reconstructed as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But a rendition that is not as performed as it should be is the 19th century opera by French Romantic composer Charles Gounod. Luckily for local audiences, Virginia Opera Company has staged a visually sumptuous and vocally stellar production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet that proves exactly why this timeless tragedy is so, well, timeless.
Director Bernard Uzan, whose director’s note states that he has directed Gounod’s opera a whopping 16 times throughout his long career, crafts a dynamic and gorgeous production. Often drenched in pink and gold light by Lighting and Projection Designer Michael Baumgarten, this Romeo and Juliet is unabashedly historical. It has all the gold, brocades, and, yes, men in tights that constitute good old fashioned Shakespeare. In light of all the updated and re-contextualized Romeo and Juliets that we are used to seeing, from Baz Luhrmann to West Side Story, it was actually quite refreshing to go back to the velvet and feathers Verona of the original text.
The monumental set, designed by Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan, evokes a Medici palace featuring elegant arches and a magnificent 14th century style backdrop. The effect was of a dusty Renaissance painting that has sprung to life in an explosion of sight and sound, both stunning and invigorating.
Against this luscious setting played the crystalline tones of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, led with a deft baton by Conductor John Baril. Smoothly transitioning from the exuberant staccatos of Act I to the languorous romantic melodies of Acts II and V, the orchestra perfectly prepared the singers for musical excellence. And that, certainly, was achieved.
Tenor Jonathan Boyd played Romeo as a sort of all-American golden boy (circa 15th century Verona). Boyd possesses a round and vibrant voice that pierced through the house like Cupid’s arrow. In particular, his aria that takes place after the famous balcony scene in Act II had the audience spellbound, and when he nailed a high note the house broke out in applause.
Juliet, played with exuberant grace by soprano Marie-Eve Munger, is given numerous opportunities to shine in Gounod’s adaptation, and Munger is adept at seizing them all. In Act I, at Capulet’s feast, she whirls around the stage while delivering Gounod’s famous “Je veux vivre dans le reve (Juliet’s Waltz)” an infectious ode to youthful vitality that clashes with the tragedy we know to be unfolding
At least since its London premiere in 1867, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet has been noted for a series of duets between the titular lovers. These were on full display last night, as Boyd and Munger seemed to swim over and between each other’s voices, creating an emphatic and multifaceted sound that was the star of the show, vocally.
Other notable performances include Ashram Sewailam as the mercurial Count Capulet, whose rich bass-baritone sent shock waves through the house whenever he sang, particularly during his introductory aria that welcomes his guests, “Allons! jeunes gens!”
Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely incorporates a welcome maternal warmth and humor to her role as Juliet’s nurse, named Gertrude in Gounod’s production. Likewise, baritone Efrain Solis is an agile and hilarious Mercurio. The famous Queen Mab speech, delivered in Act I as a sprightly aria, was one of the most exciting musical moments of the show.
As Juliet’s brooding cousin Tybalt, Kyle Tomlin presents a swaggering young soldier with a chip on his shoulder. His earthy tenor and aggressive demeanor was a nice counterpoint to Romeo’s innocent crooning.
Mezzo-soprano Kimerly Sogioka brought a wonderful vitality to the Gounod-originated role of Stephano, written as a page to Romeo who sparks the massive Act III brawl by taunting the Capulets about his Master’s amorous connection to their cousin. Sogioka’s crystal clear voice and high spirited action made for a rousing start to Act III
Romeo and Juliet may be an old and often-told story, but its core story of youth, passion, and tragic misdirected anger is a perpetual joy to watch when it is performed well. And in Virginia Opera Company’s rendition, it certainly is. With a stable of top-tier voices and an intoxicatingly beautiful stage picture, Virginia Opera and Bernard Uzan’s production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet should not be missed.
Running Time: About two hours and forty five minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
has one more performance today, Sunday, February 14, 2016, at Virginia Opera performing at George Mason University Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets for today’s performance online.