On March 13, San Diego Opera continued its 2010 season with the opening performance of Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Previously seen in 1973 and 1998, this is the third production of Gounod's tragic love story in the company's history. The big news this time around, was the double debut of husband and wife singers Stephen Costello as Romeo and Ailyn Pérez as Juliette. With an impressive history dating back to the mid-60's, San Diego Opera has both strong roots in the local community and an international-caliber reputation that facilitates the signing of a top-flight roster of singers. And despite the intermittent musical inspiration of Gounod's final opera, the packed house on Saturday erupted in storms of applause at the conclusion, indicating their enthusiastic approval and support of this excellent regional opera company.
Certainly, the production could not be faulted as a faithful re-telling of Shakespeare's tragedy. The attractive sets and costumes (borrowed from the Utah Opera) and intricate choreography provided vivid visual imagery and believable settings in which the characters could interact. Some of the stage business was almost too detailed (e.g., a couple of the fight scenes), distracting the audience from the singing and making it difficult to focus on the principal characters. Nevertheless, there was an appropriate and pleasing 'storybook' quality, and, thankfully, a total absence of cheap, modernist effects. The five acts of Gounod's original creation were shortened by the cutting of the Act 4 wedding banquet and ballet, and reformatted into three acts for the San Diego production. Director Cynthia Stokes enabled her singers to tell the story in a straightforward fashion by giving them detailed, but relatively simple blocking and permitting them to step forward and address the audience during the big vocal moments (i.e., the arias and duets). This somewhat 'old-fashioned' approach allowed the audience to fully appreciate both Gounod's music and the unfolding narrative. There were a few directorial missteps, including rather forced and inappropriate intimacy between the title characters upon their first meeting. Worse still, was a badly blocked bedroom scene during which Romeo and Juliette must succeed in conveying both their mutual longing and their reluctance to separate. The movements here were poorly handled, actually eliciting chuckling from the audience. Elsewhere, Stokes handled the many choral scenes effectively, skillfully smoothing out the many scenic transitions – some quite awkward – demanded by Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.
If almost all went well from a staging perspective, the musical aspect of the production was more uneven. The biggest disappointment was the total lack of anything resembling 'French style'. I was reminded of the EMI recording of this opera with Corelli and Freni: Italian opera with French words. Almost no one in the cast seemed to have been coached in the style of pronunciation and phrasing appropriate for French opera. Not even conductor Karen Keltner seemed interested in imbuing the proceedings with hints of French coloring by underlining Gounod's unique harmonies. In fact, Keltner's uninspired conducting didn't make a statement of any kind. While she did successfully engender a solid sense of ensemble among her orchestral and vocal forces, she failed to mold the music into scenic arcs, preferring to simply beat time and let the singers dictate the ebb and flow. Only the superb cellists – returning time after time to the heart-wrenching strains of the death theme – were able to conjure the repose and introverted emotionalism often identified with the French style.
One of the problematic aspects of Shakespeare's tale is the large population of secondary characters. Oftentimes, opera librettists can successfully pare down the cast list to the bare essentials, as was the case in Bellini's treatment of the story: I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Where Bellini had three secondary characters, Gounod has eleven. A cast this large inevitably means that there will be many one-dimensional, ill-defined characters, and possibly several less accomplished singers. Joel Sorensen's Tybalt was solidly sung, but his hammy overacting was a distraction. In the important role of Mercutio, baritone David Adam Moore was a surprisingly effective swordsman, but offered wan, underpowered vocalism. Baritone Malcom MacKenzie was excellent in the smaller role of Gregorio, as was the wonderfully characterful actress Suzanna Guzmán as the nurse Gertrude. New Zealander Sarah Castle worked her way splendidly through her thankless and difficult aria as the page Stephano. And easily the best among the secondary roles was the Friar Laurence of veteran bass Kevin Langan. In fact, of all the singers, it was only Langan who offered the complete package: vibrant, ringing tone, polished phrasing, incisive diction, and convincing, unfussy acting. Hopefully, the younger singers (including the two leads) were paying attention to the mastery Langan brought to the 'craft' of being a successful opera singer.
American tenor Stephen Costello is riding the wave of success that every young singer dreams about. With recent debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, he seems poised for a major career, and is in demand for light lyric roles in a wide-ranging repertoire. Expectations for his Romeo were high, but unfortunately, his performance on opening night was largely disappointing. His voice, per se, is attractive: a light, reedy sound that is best heard in lyrical moments when he chooses to singing softly. Sadly, these moments were few, and as Romeo, it seemed as if he was attempting to channel Franco Corelli, complete with inelegant phrasing, blasted and over-held high notes and total absence of French style. Costello hasn't even half the vocal amplitude of a singer like Corelli however, and so there was little of the visceral excitement that might have compensated for such a rudimentary stylistic approach. Time and again, Costello attacked notes from below – a typically 'Italian' vocal trick – and grandstanded with thin, tenuous high notes that sounded neither appealing, nor particularly secure. His voice is fairly lightweight, even for Romeo, so he tended to over-sing, with unattractive results. Worse still, Costello was a terribly uninvolved actor: stiff and awkward on the stage. Despite being an attractive man, he never looked comfortable; even his physical chemistry with Juliette seemed forced much of the time. Perhaps most or all of these weaknesses will improve over the run of performances, but this was a surprisingly provincial offering from an up-and-coming 'star'.
Soprano Ailyn Pérez had an altogether more satisfying success than her husband. Pérez has a gorgeous voice: dark, malleable, and capable of a wide palette of tonal colors, it is the best kind of lyric soprano. She tends to cover the sound in the upper middle in order to create a wonderful depth of resonance, but this leads to some awkwardness when she must ascend into her high register. The notes are all there, with easy, rounded high C's, but the transition between registers was often jarring. While she can negotiate with little breaking of the vocal line now, this is a technical flaw that should be corrected as soon as possible. Nevertheless, her Juliette was mostly ravishing, and she was particularly effective in the difficult 'potion aria' when Juliette fights with her fear and uncertainties. Pérez was a comfortably natural actress, painting a three-dimensional portrait of a young woman in love through her use of Gounod's vocal lines and her easy rapport with Costello. Like Costello, incisive diction was not one of Pérez's strengths, but she made up for this lack with her glamorous tone and generous stage presence. She and Costello will proceed to Cincinnati this summer to perform Puccini's La Bohème together, and she should make an ideal Mimi. Her biography also reveals an up-coming engagement at Milan's La Scala as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra – a role that would seem well beyond her lyric soprano resources.
Despite my numerous reservations, the production was a resounding success for San Diego Opera and as mentioned above, the audience showered the performers – the two leads in particular - with storms of approving applause. It is great to know that regional opera in the US is healthy and offering productions with such solid artistic values. After three further performances of Roméo et Juliette, San Diego Opera's season will conclude with Verdi's La Traviata, starring Elizabeth Futral, Marius Brenciu, and Alan Opie, and opening on 17 April.
Photos: Ken Howard
From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera (November 2009)
Il trittico at the San Francisco Opera (September 2009)
Tosca at the Metropolitan (October 2009)
The Gambler at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (February 2010)
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