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Shakespeare in Love

San Diego
03/13/2010 -  & 16, 19, 21 March 2010
Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette
Ailyn Pérez (Juliette), Stephen Costello (Roméo), David Adam Moore (Mercutio), Joel Sorensen (Tybalt), Kevin Langan (Frère Laurent), Sarah Castle (Stéphano), Scott Sikon (Le comte Capulet), Malcolm MacKenzie (Gregorio), Suzanna Guzmán (Gertrude), Joseph Hu (Benvolio), Philip Skinner (Le Duc de Vérone and Frère Jean), Paul Hindemith (Le comte Pâris)
San Diego Opera Chorus, Timothy Todd Simmons (Chorus Master), San Diego Opera Orchestra, Jeff Thayer (Concertmaster), Karen Keltner (Conductor)
Cynthia Stokes (Director), Erid Fielding (Scenic Designer), Susan Memmott-Allred (Costume Designer), Ruth Hutson (Lighting Designer), Keturah Stickann (Choreographer), Dale Anthony Girard (Fight Director), Steven W. Bryant (Wig and Makeup Designer)

(© Ken Howard)

For centuries many of the world’s prolific writers have delved into the topics of human emotions and dilemmas, all impacting the art arena. One of the most well known is William Shakespeare. This noted poet and playwright was an exponential force since many of his works were interpreted and presented on stage through operatic compositions. Several composers profiled Shakespeare’s colorful characters and turned them into prized masterpieces including Thomas’ Hamlet, Verdi’s Macbeth and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the famous couple from Verona, Italy would also lay claim to such notoriety. Thus, we have a case in point with Charles Gounod’s illustrious work of Roméo et Juliette. With the successful opening of the opera Faust (1859), based on Goethe’s literary work, it was a logical progression for Gounod to venture into the world of Shakespeare. The premiere of Roméo et Juliette on April 27, 1867 was fortuitous for Gounod since it was presented during the Paris World Exhibition, an additional boost that the French composer greatly needed at the time.

As with many French operas, Roméo et Juliette underwent several editions and revisions. In collaboration with longtime associate and librettist, Jules Barbier, Charles Gounod streamlined the protracted play into a lush score, filled with riveting ensembles alongside romantic arias and duets. The original format of Roméo et Juliette is lengthy. Thus, several sections are altered, solely at the discretion of the director and conductor.

It is here that director Cynthia Stokes, alongside Karen Keltner’s conducting and French operatic expertise, creates a production that is graceful and pleasing. The objective in this rendition is to focus on Romeo and Juliet and their love story. After the brief dramatic overture, the curtain rises on Eric Fielding’s beautifully crafted Capulet interior, reminiscent of 15th century Italian architecture. Since the prologue is deleted, we immediately witness the masked ball complete with ballet, choreographed by Keturah Stickann, which is delicate and complimentary in tandem with the three-quarter waltz.

With exception of New Zealander Sarah Castle, this cast is all-American, and a young one at that. Real life couple Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez star in the title roles, singing for the first time as a married couple and for the first time at San Diego Opera. Both are well suited vocally, and they connect rapturously amidst the four duets dotted throughout the score. In particular, Pérez sings the emotional range, beginning with her coloratura “Je veux vivre” that is stunning. On the opposite end of the spectrum we are treated to the oft omitted aria, “Amour ranime mon courage” which she manages with a stunning punch.

Steven Costello sings the role of Romeo and has a voice that is pristine and piquant. Because Romeo appears throughout most of the opera, it requires pacing and an array of different voices. Even though the musical accomplishments are exceptional, there is a passion that is subtly lost. This emptiness, however, does not detract from the sheer lyrical beauty.

One of the highlights is that of Sarah Castle singing the trouser role of Romeo’s page, Stephano. As a mezzo soprano, her rendition of “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” is perky and witty. It adds a degree of lightheartedness prior to the ensuing sword drawn battle between the Capulets and Montagues. Award-winning fight director Dale Anthony Girard provides the audience with a convincing altercation and nonstop action on all levels of the stage. The costumes designed by Susan Memmott-Allred are colorful and period appropriate but feuding families are blurred by lack of uniform identity to help us determine who’s who. One of the most poignant moments is hearing Timothy Todd Simmons’ chorus lamenting the loss of two lives. It resounds with power.

A pivotal role in bridging the gap between Romeo and Juliet is that of Friar Lawrence. No stranger to San Diego Opera, Kevin Langan represents the clerical vein with assuredness and stability. When Friar Lawrence presents the poison to Juliet (“Une pâleur blème efface les roses dans des vos lèvres”), the orchestral and vocal notes meld together to produce a sweet yet somber passage that is mesmerizing. Suzanna Guzmán’s ability to interpret Gertrude as the protective yet slightly comical nurse to Juliet is a nice touch to the youthful troupe.

The intricacies of the “Ballad of Queen Mab” are swift and short. Dancing along the notes with animation and keen elucidation is Texan David Adam Moore, making his debut as Romeo’s close friend, Mercutio. The role suits him well, and his acting during the fight scene adds momentum, drama and excitement. As Mercutio’s foe, we find Joel Sorensen as the feisty and taunting Tybalt who provides heightened tension. The other remaining principals, Scott Sikon, Paul Hindemith, Philip Skinner, and Malcolm MacKenzie as Count Capulet, Count Paris, Duke of Verona/Friar John and Gregorio, respectively, all add sufficiently distinct elements to this production.

Karen Keltner does an exceptional job in maintaining a respectful tempo that compliments the series of evolving set changes while the curtain is up. Because each of the scenes in Roméo et Juliette is found in varying locations, Stokes and Fielding have cleverly devised moving panels, windows, staircases and trees that magically appear and disappear as the music continues. At no point is there a moment of waiting or sense of underlying prolonged impatience. This production is not static.

Roméo et Juliette is an endless fabric of rich musical tapestry. Once again, it is refreshing to see San Diego Opera bring the timeless story of the star-crossed lovers to stage through the exceptional artistry of Charles Gounod. This is a rare opportunity to have Shakespeare’s work truly come to life in tasteful beauty, both musically and visually. Obviously, Shakespeare would be in love with THIS production.

Christie Grimstad



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