Roméo et Juliette
This year, Santa Fe Opera unveiled its firstever production of Charles Gounod’s Gounod’s librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, largely followed Shakespeare’s story — the tale of the tragedy that ensues in fair Verona when Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet cross the line of familial division and fall in love.
Director Stephen Lawless sets the action not in Renaissance Italy but rather in the United States during or just after the Civil War. Lawless himself seems halfhearted about it, and the concept is not woven convincingly into the details of the staging. Ashley Martin-Davis designed the sets and the costumes, and the latter have much more to recommend them. They are lovely to behold, rich in spiffy military uniforms for the men and billowing gowns for the ladies.
The opening scene was performed spectacularly well by the opera’s chorus, made up of the company’s apprentice singers. I doubt that there is an opera chorus in the land that equals this one’s combination of youthful high-quality voices and commitment to dramatic purpose. Chorus master Susanne Sheston has fashioned them into a real choral ensemble.
This production boasts strength from both leads. Soprano Ailyn Pérez worked her way up to a powerful presence as Juliette. In recent years she has been honored with some of the opera world’s top awards, and the reasons are made clear in much of her performance here. To my ears, though, the most endearing qualities of her voice diminish when she moves into top volume; but what I hear as strident at full throttle others may experience as thrilling. As Roméo, Stephen Costello’s gleaming tenor showed even warmth throughout his range. His performance combined dramatic urgency with unerring vocal tastefulness; and what’s more, he sang convincingly in French.
The secondary parts were upheld solidly. Mezzosoprano Deborah Nansteel offered some amusing understatement as Gertrude ( Juliet’s nurse), and bass Raymond Aceto aptly conveyed the seriousness of his position as Frère Laurent. Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, as Roméo’s page Stéphano, took a relaxed tempo with conductor Harry Bicket in her aria “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle”; it honored Gounod’s marking, yet the interpretation would have benefited from more punch and sparkle. Most impressive among the secondary roles was the Mercutio of Elliot Madore. His rich-toned baritone combined with clear diction, and one was truly sorry to see his role end midway through the opera.
The musical structure of hinges to a large degree on the four extended duets between the young lovers. Lawless directed Pérez and Costello so as to reflect their evolving relationship. They seemed not to have reached a full boil for the Act II balcony scene, but their Act IV duet achieved a level of musical eroticism that matched the action onstage. Their moving death scene in Act V inspired the surrounding members of the two families, posed asa to come to life and lay down their arms as the lovers expired.
“Roméo et Juliette” continues with performances at 8 p.m. on Aug. 9, 16, and 25.