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Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]
22 May 2016

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]


The final three performances featured the Roméo of Eric Cutler, whose contributions created a memorable atmosphere in what was already a movingly effective production. In addition to Mr. Cutler, Juliette was sung by Susanna Phillips, Frère Laurent by Christian Van Horn, Gertrude by Deborah Nansteel, and Lord Capulet by Philip Horst. The younger generation related to and associated with the Capulets and Montagues was represented by Jason Slayden as Tybalt, Takaoki Onishi as Count Paris, Joshua Hopkins as Mercutio, Anthony Clark Evans as Gregorio, and Marianne Crebassa as Stephano. David Govertsen portrayed the Duke of Verona. Mmes. Nansteel and Crebassa and M. Slayden were singing in debut roles at Lyric Opera. The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume; the production - owned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York - was directed by Bartlett Sher in his Lyric debut; Michael Black prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

Before the overture commences, members of the chorus process, in costume, onto the stage. Some carry chairs to stationery positions, others simply move through the courtyard. This activity continues during the overture until all are assembled and face the audience. From dress, hair-style and decorative accoutrements the atmosphere of a court, from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and its associated festivities are suggested. When the chorus declaims the prologue detailing the enmity of rival families in Verona, the production emphasizes the overbearing pressure of the court and its ability to snuff out the spark of individual emotion. No secret is made of the tragedy which the chorus relates. Indeed here the figure of Roméo is poised at stage front as he scans the tumult of the court, while Juliette surveys amusedly the doings from her balcony. Both principals are, in these early moments, simple elements in a larger courtly milieu. At the sudden sound of a bell, many of the courtiers don masks and respond to the raucous tone of both music and text, while they pursue pleasure and one another about the stage. Once the scene thins to individual characters, Tybalt and Paris speak of the feast at the Capulet house and, specifically, of the young Juliette who is destined to wed Paris. Mr. Slayden’s impressively supple voice lingered on the description of Juliette as “le trésor unique,” as he guided Mr. Onishi’s Paris toward the family. The male and female members of the chorus trade the line “Ah! qu’elle est belle!” in excited succession as Juliette enters accompanied by her father. In Ms. Phillips’s characterization the heroine still revels in the court’s frivolity as she declares with noted vehemence, “Tout me fȇte et m’enivre!” [“All to celebrate and to enchant me!”]. Soon after the entrance of Roméo with his friends he complains of a dream bearing an unexplained premonition. At once Mercutio seizes the topic and sings the “Ballade de la Reine Mab,” which credits Queen Mab with rule over all human dreams. Mr. Hopkins performs this frenetic depiction delightfully with touching intonation on the final word in “Et te fait rȇver de baisers!” [“And makes you dream of kisses!”]. Within seconds Roméo is indeed struck by the sight of Juliette and of her “beauté celeste” [“heavenly beauty”]. Already in this brief, opening narration Mr. Cutler captures the persona of his character by communicating vocally his emotional entrancement. Each word seems here laden with the weight of growing attraction. Mercutio drags him away at the moment of Juliette’s reappearance. In her protestations to Gertrude, Juliette’s aria “Je veux vivre” [“I wish to live”] celebrates her freedom to revel in the joys of court life before the onset of an emotional attachment. Ms. Phillips’s delivery of this well-known piece is assured in its transitions and runs, while she also omits the decorative top notes before “un doux trésor” [“a sweet treasure”].

Once Juliette is able to send Gertrude away, the subsequent madrigal for two, starting with “Ange adorable” [“Adorable angel”], expresses love in its purest essence. Here the two singers express their attraction innocently believable by accenting individual words. Cutler’s high pitches at the start are followed by an aching, softer color on “vermeille” in “une bouche vermeille” [“a rosy mouth”] signifying Roméo’s growing ardor. Phillips places similarly telling emphasis on “Non! Je l’ai pris!” [“No! I have taken it!”], when refusing to return the penitent’s sin taken up symbolically as her responsibility. The finale of the act halts such touching banter at the return of Tybalt and his recognition of Roméo beneath a mask. As they take leave, both lovers realize the purity of their emotional transformation.

At the start of Act II the result of this change is surely apparent. Roméo sings of the night [“O nuit!”] at he emerges from the darkness at stage rear, just as he soon begs the daylight to commence in the tenor showpiece, “Ah! lève-toi soleil!” (“Ah! Arise, o sun”)]. The light in Juliette’s window induces an ardor made eminently sincere in this aria by Cutler’s fervent appeals. His graceful approach to top notes and remarkable application of piano give the breathless impression of a hero coming to terms with his true love. With the final, extended high pitches on “viens! parais!” [“Come! Appear!”] Cutler’s Roméo has convinced both himself and us of his devotion. The subsequent pursuit of Roméo initiated by Gregorio and the Capulet servants allows for a confrontation with Gertrude who purports to shield the family’s name. In her role as protector of Juliette Ms. Nansteel makes a strong impression. Her deep, rich voice is used with comfortable flexibility and her assumption of this role indicates a natural skill at acting. Indeed her participation with Mr. Van Horn’s Frère Laurent in the emotional commitment of Juliette places a convincing seal on this tragic love. Before these elders witness the secret marriage of the young couple Juliette has undergone an emotional transformation; she tells Roméo that only a sincere love will suffice. In their lovers’ duet on the preceding night the principal voices blend most effectively with an ideal unison on “tristesse” in the line adapted almost literally from Shakespeare, “De cet adieu si douce est la tristesse” [“From this sweet farewell comes such sorrow”]. The final words in this scene belong to Roméo, a parting sentiment made especially poignant in Mr. Cutler’s performance. While imitating the sweet sleep that he wishes for Juliette the word “sommeille!” is held on an extended, dreamlike note. Cutler concludes the scene with an ethereal, high pitch to decorate the “baiser” [“kiss”] that he sends via the night’s breezes [“Que la brise des nuits te porte ce baiser!”].

Religious, spare motifs are assembled for the secret visit to Friar Laurence on the following morning. An appropriate voice of authority is assumed by Van Horn as he declares “Entends ma prière fervente!”]. The tragic irony of the future “enfants” [“children”], who will never be, is emphasized in Van Horn’s embellishment on the repeated word in “Et les enfants de leurs enfants!” [“and the children of their children!”]. With the official pronouncement of marriage Gertrude is recalled for the final moment of happiness in a quartet. “Sois béni” [“Be blessed”] is intoned in innocent ardor while no one yet realizes the tragic consequences to follow.

In the second part of the opera tragedy and misunderstanding indeed predominate. The song of Roméo’s friend Stephano, sung outside the Capulet house, “Que fais-tu, blanche tourtourelle?” [“What are you doing, white turtledove?”] precipitates the series of arguments and duels leading to several deaths and the banishment of Roméo. Ms. Crebassa gives a masterful rendition of Stephano’s chanson, replete with fluttering runs and decorative touches mimicking the flight of a bird. When he is challenged by Tybalt, it is Mercutio who defends the Montague honor. Despite Roméo’s entreaties Mercutio is killed; Roméo’s anger prompts his duel with Tybalt who in turn falls from a sword-blow. The demand of “Justice!” by Lord Capulet summons the Duke of Verona. In this role Mr. Govertsen assumes an authoritative yet sympathetic declamation, when he spares Roméo’s life yet banishes him from the city.

In the final two acts Juliette expresses her understanding for Roméo’s actions, just as he visits to bid farewell. Their extended duet, “Nuit d’hyménée” [“Night of our marriage”] shows both characters entranced in a vocal web, that Phillips and Cutler create as a mirror of their emotions. Their voices blend repeatedly in “toujours à toi” [“Forever yours”] and “il faut partir” [“You must leave”]. In order to thwart the family’s plan of Juliette’s marriage to Paris, Friar Laurence provides the famous potion that will cause her to sleep as if dead. Paris, Lord Capulet, and the assembled court are horrified at her collapse during the marriage ceremony; they prepare instead for a funeral.

The touching, shared death in the final scene of the opera is prefigured by Roméo’s monologue at its start. Here Cutler delineates the anguish, resolution, and faithfulness of the ultimate loving soul in his delivery. Once he enters Juliette’s tomb, unaware of her feigned death, Roméo must take farewell and drink the true poison. Distinct vocal color is applied here to “éternité” and to “peur” [“fear”] which he shuns when facing death for the sake of Juliette. When addressing his own lips, Roméo instructs them to give Juliette his last kiss. Cutler’s soaring pitch on “votre dernier baiser” leads to the heartrending revival of Juliette and the final tragedy of the musical drama.

Salvatore Calomino

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