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Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]
05 Mar 2011

Roméo et Juliette, Philadelphia

Neither the music nor the libretto of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is quite compelling enough to have made it a popular standard.

Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette

Romeo: Stephen Costello; Juliet: Ailyn Pérez; Mercutio: Marian Pop; Stéphano: Elena Belfiore; Capulet: Daniel Mobbs; Gertrude: Olivia Vote; Tybalt: Taylor Stayton; Duke of Verona: Frank Mitchell; Friar Laurent: Justin Hopkins; Gregario: Jeffrey Chapman; Paris: Siddartha Misra; Benvolio: Paul Vetrano. Opera Company of Philadelphia. Conductor: Jacques Lacombe. Director: Manfred Schweigkofler.

Above: Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]


Fifty years ago performances were heavily cut, as much of the music lacks dramatic punch. The idiomatic Italo-French performance style in which it was written has all but died out. Its libretto bowdlerizes Shakespeare.

Yet a number of memorable arias and duets—and the reflected glory of the Bard—have kept Roméo alive. It is, moreover, widely viewed an appropriate vehicle for young and visually appropriate singers with medium-weight voices—though perhaps wrongly, since the greatest Roméos have included Jean de Reszke, Georges Thill, Jussi Björling, and Franco Corelli. The opera is thus intermittently revived when fresh new talent is at hand.

Such was the case this month at the Philadelphia Opera, which cast Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello as the stat-crossed lovers. Pictures of the good-looking couple, shot at an all-day session last summer, made for effective publicity. Pérez and Costello were on the airwaves and web, recounting their story of having graduated from Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and becoming real-life husband and wife in 2008. Both are rising quickly in the opera world. Costello will join Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča for his second opening night at the Met next fall. Pérez has been singing in Berlin, Vienna, London and La Scala.

This casting was evidently insufficient to assure a box-office hit, so the company imported producer Manfred Schweigkofler from Italy. His big concept was to reset the story as a modern-day haute couture battle between rival Capulet and Montague fashion houses. The idea is not as radical as it might sound. Modern Shakespeare adaptations are old hat after Baz Luhrmann’s diverting (if not deep) film Romeo+Juliet and the Shakespeare Retold version of Macbeth, with its warring chefs. Opera Company of Philadelphia has had good luck in the past with modernized productions, most notably its wonderfully whacky 1950s Cenerentola a few years back, which opened with Angelina pushing around a vacuum cleaner.

Some local critics were hostile. True, this Juliet was more Versace than virgin, the modern setting belied the Victorian-era text, and some subtleties of Gounod’s score were obscured by overly energetic stage activity. Yet I found the fashionista concept dramatically engaging. Why not portray Juliette as a teenage House of Capulet model, play her Dad as the head designer, center the Capulet party on a group of runway models parading new outfits, deliver the poison in a martini glass, let paparazzi swarm around the stage, stage fights with golf clubs not swords, and set paper boys loose through the audience delivering tragic news? Schweigkofler has, moreover, a keen sense of color and line; the set, designed by Nora Veneri, looked great, even if the stage business taking place on it could be cloying. The unit set was clearly built to be inexpensive. No doubt the production concept helped sell out the house, create buzz, and stimulate community involvement—since fashion students from three local universities designed outfits for the party aka runway show.

Yet in the end, of course, Roméo needs to sell itself on the singing of its leads. Both seemed to take a while to warm up, or simply felt more comfortable in later acts. Costello’s famous second-act aria, “Ah, lève-toi soleil!,” was short-breathed and dynamically imprecise. Thereafter he seemed to settle down, displaying more subtle dynamics and phrasing—though his timbre often retained a pressed, somewhat monochromatically metallic “young tenor” sound, with the (often conjoined) tendency to slide off pitch. There is little doubt, nonetheless, that this is an exceptional voice of real promise, with true Italianate virtues: squillo, ringing high notes, and some ability to mix head and chest tones. His French was adequate.

Pérez is the more energetic stage presence. As happens with many young sopranos, her voice is now moving beyond the lyric coloratura roles in which she has specialized to date. She was least comfortable in the famous Act I showpiece, but, like Costello, she seemed warm into the role thereafter. Like him, also, her voice can be cooler and more metallic than one might wish; I found the bottom of the voice more attractive. Yet there is little doubt that this is a gifted, smart and technically accomplished singer with a potentially important career ahead of her. The duets, as one might perhaps expect from a married couple, were well-rehearsed.

The other members of the ensemble were strong, particularly fellow AVA graduate Daniel Mobbs as Capulet, but also Romanian baritone Marian Pop, Italian mezzo Elena Belfiore, and three other young singers with Philadelphia connections: Olivia Vote, Taylor Strayton, and Justin Hopkins. The chorus sang lustily and the orchestra, a weak link in many Philadelphia performances, surpassed its usual standard under the unaccustomed baton of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director, Jacques Lacombe.

Andrew Moravcsik

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