Romeo and Juliet
By Charles Gounod
By Lori Dana
As its final offering of the 2015-16 season Lyric Opera presents a French gem, conducted by a master of the répertoire Français and featuring superlative singers in every rôle, from the famously star-crossed lovers down to the lowliest page. Based on the classic play by William Shakespeare, Gounod’s opera relies on a skillfully abridged libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré that eliminates many secondary characters and plot lines, distilling the bard’s tale of love and revenge to its most bittersweet essence. One must assume that the breathtaking poetry of the supertitles quotes directly from the Victor Hugo translation employed by the librettists, creating lush romantic visions that perfectly compliment Gounod’s exceptionally beautiful and sensuous music. In contrast to its rich musical landscape, all of the action in Romeo and Juliet takes place on a single, charcoal gray set. Stately facades surround an open courtyard that, through the judicious use of lighting and props, alternately serves as the Capulet’s palace ballroom, a Verona marketplace, a church, a bedchamber and a crypt. As it has in almost every production this season, the Lyric Opera chorus is a key component in telling the story and propelling the action forward. In the first artfully choreographed scene, chorus members introduce us to the members of the warring Montague and Capulet clans, as they slowly parade across the stage to take their places on chairs upholstered in blood red. There is a sense of foreboding, not only in the music of the prologue but in the dark, dusty tones of the costumes; the duns and grays of the common folk eventually giving way to the muted reds and purples of rival aristocrats. Director Bartlett Sher, a distinguished stage and opera veteran using contrast as his primary tool, presents the young lovers in the context of a society torn apart by revenge and conflict, allowing us to experience the heightened emotions created by Shakespeare’s confluence of politics and passion.
The director’s inspiration is due in no small part to musical contrasts that create the flow of the opera, from festive dances and ravishing arias to the dramatic duels that presage the lovers’ tragic deaths. The musical engine of this production is the Lyric Opera Orchestra, whose passionate playing under the awe-inspiring direction of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume gives Gounod’s music the exquisitely sensitive treatment it demands. The results are predictably swoon-worthy. So too, are the glorious voices of Lyric’s Romeo and Juliet. American soprano Susanna Phillips captivates from her very first note as the eager, innocent Juliet. Her facile mastery of Gounod’s coloratura is joyous to experience. Perfectly matched with Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s Romeo, this pair makes sparks fly. One of the rapidly rising stars of his generation, Calleja’s vocal prowess and emotional depth are more evident each time he performs at Lyric. The universal excellence of the production’s supporting players also cannot be understated. Christian Van Horn (Friar Lawrence), Philip Horst (Lord Capulet), Marianne Crebassa (Stephano) and Deborah Nansteel (Gertrude) are just a few of the noteworthy performers who add lustre to an exciting, seasoned cast.
Although it’s a period piece, Romeo and Juliet’s brisk pacing, streamlined set and slightly edgy costuming give the production a modern feel that is sure to appeal to the younger, contemporary audience Lyric is currently courting. The luscious music and marvelous singing should leave longtime fans of romantic opera and newbies alike more than satisfied. Once again, Lyric Opera has succeeded in creating the truly grand, and leaves us all wishing the season weren’t coming to an end so soon.
(“Romeo and Juliet,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)