Santa Fe, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera presents a marvelous production of Gounod’s quintessentially French version of Shakespeare’s tragic romance, Roméo et Juliette.
Gounod, and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carréde, stick close to the original play, but the action slows with the requisite large choral scenes and French opera’s de rigueur ballet (moved to the first act). They only fail the Bard when it comes to the ending. They allow the unfortunate couple a tender final duet and the ecstasy of dying in each other’s arms.
In the play, Romeo drinks poison thinking that Juliette is dead, although she is in a drug-induced coma as part of a plot to let the lovers escape. When Juliette awakes, she finds Romeo dead and then uses a dagger to end her own life. But they don’t die right away. Gounod’s desire for one more duet robs the story of Shakespeare’s ultimate tragic ending: the ill-fated lovers are robbed of a final goodbye. They just miss. Now, that is really tragic.
The Santa Fe production, directed by Stephen Lawless, moves the action forward to the antebellum hoop-skirted era around the time of the Civil War. However, he misses the opportunity to carry this all the way and make the two warring families, the Montagues and Capulets, the Union and Confederate forces. Instead, they are vaguely military with one in red and the other in blue. The other problem with this time and place shift is that the era of Dukes and Counts was long over. It appears that the only reason is to allow costume designer Ashley Martin-Davis to produce a stage full of crinoline puffed hoop skirts, although they are certainly lovely.
Martin-Davis pulls off a clever trick right at the beginning. The chorus sings the prologue dressed in black. When the party scene begins, these garments are instantly shed, revealing huge white dresses and military style uniforms. At the performance reviewed (Aug. 4), The audience gaves the transformation a gasp and some appreciative applause. (One can only imagine the miles of Velcro required to make it work.)
The set, also by Martin-Davis, is a mausoleum, with dark gray floor-to-ceiling crypts. The walls move to create the other scenes and doors open for exits and entrances. A lower section moves forward to create Juliette’s famous balcony. The center stage lift serves multiple roles. For example, it is Juliette’s bier and raises a supersized golden cupid to sort-of imply the garden setting. The ever-present mausoleum walls, in all of their configurations, soak the opera with the stench of death throughout, even in the celebratory party scene. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting creates the different scenes in spite of the ever-present walls.
An aside: One interpretation could be that it is all a flashback as the two abashed families gather for the double funeral at the beginning and ending. Regrettably, my seat was too far back to see the names on the crypts. Others, closer, relate that they are amusing. Reportedly, there is even a Scarlet O’Hara somewhere on the wall.
As always, Santa Fe delivers a strong cast. But the opera depends on the two leads and Stephen Costello and Ailyn Peréz are marvelous as the star-crossed lovers. Their real-life marriage and divorce appears to be history because the chemistry between the two on stage is incendiary.
Peréz continues to amaze. Vocally, her resplendent voice sounds like it is moving into spinto territory, yet her coloratura work and stratospheric high notes remain strong from her earlier years. These vocal abilities open a world of roles that require a helping of both, such as Violeta in Verdi’s La traviata or Bellini’s Norma.
But the takeaway of a Peréz performance is not her vocal splendor. It is her ability to redefine her roles by adding depth and realism. Her Juliette is a case in point.
When we first see her, she is girlish and mischievous, snitching a bottle of champagne in front of her exasperated nurse. Her well-known showpiece aria, “Ah! Je veux vivre,” rather than showing the usual frivolity, slows more than usually heard to becomes an ardent statement her desire to become an independent woman.
She leaves girlhood behind when overwhelmed by the hot scorch of love at first sight. Upon finding out that he is Romeo, son of her father’s hated family, she grows up into nascent womanhood in a second. At the surreptitious wedding, she is the desired independent woman she described in her first aria. At the end, she appears to have aged decades.
Costello has a versatile tenor voice, allowing him to be effective in many different roles. He is not quite a squeelando tenor with a Pavarotti-esque swoon-inducing high note, yet he is effective in Italian opera, such as the role of the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. His vocal range defies category and makes him perfect for French roles like Roméo. His clean enunciation, solid vocal technique and ability to sing a gorgeous soft and floating phrase are the hallmark of famous French tenors of the past.
An aside: When the purely Italian tenors try French opera, the results can be catastrophic, as they barrel through the role.
Dramatically, Costello creates a strapping young college freshman-ish guy, with a mischievous bent right from the start. His suddenly discovered ardent love exhilarates him beyond his control. Unlike Peréz, we don’t see events prematurely age him. Instead, events seem to spin out of his control. It is his retained youth that makes his devastation when seeing Juliette’s supposedly dead body, painful to watch.
Raymond Aceto, as Frère Laurent, brings his stunningly deep bass voice to his stately portrayal. In this production, he is an ordained doctor in a makeshift hospital rather than in a priest in a church. This does no damage to Shakespeare’s play and, in fact, offers him access to medicines, such as the sleeping potion he gives to Juliette.
Baritone Elliot Madore’s Mercutio matches Costello’s youthful exuberance. His rendition of Queen Mab’s ballad is exciting and clearly enunciated, even though taken at quite a clip. Mezzo Emily Fons, in the role of the young male Stéphano, does a fine job in spite of her silly costume.
All the other roles are strongly cast and add to the reality of the stage business. Tim Mix portrays Capulet and Soloman Howard is the Duke.
Nicholas Davis plays Grégorio. Cooper Nolan was a sneering Tybalt, and Thaddeus Ennen’s Paris would have made a suitable husband for Juliette, under other circumstances.
Two other stars of the production did not appear on stage: only their handiwork is in evidence. Fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet creates some of the most realistic sword duels seen in opera in memory.
Harry Bicket gives the opera some space and revels in Gounod’s romantic, but slightly dated, music. The orchestra responds with some fine playing. The chorus, made up of the company’s apprentice program, is as strong as you will find in any of the world’s opera houses.
» More reviews from the 2016 Santa Fe Opera season: