Lyubov Petrova and Charles Castronovo

Review: Romeo and Juliet | Dallas Opera

Such Sweet Sorrow

If Gounod’s saccharine take on Romeo and Juliet is the east, then Dallas Opera’s production is the sun.

published Saturday, February 12, 2011

Unfortunately, I am just shy of 150 years too late to complain about Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, which opened Friday in an excellent production by the Dallas Opera. Divorced from the Bard’s lilting iambic pentameter and shorn of his magical use of language, the story reverts to a creaky plot about a family grudge combined with willful tweens driven to disaster by raging hormones and parental rebellion.

In some ways, Prokofiev’s ballet works better because language is completely removed. Hearing the dated French libretto, by Jules Barber and Michael Carré, while seeing the English subtitles that tried to shoehorn in, where possible, Shakespeare’s original words, makes us all the more homesick for the original. 

Director Michael Kahn, a Shakespeare authority, does his best to overcome the deficiencies of the libretto. Gounod and his collaborators completely eliminated the final scene where the families recognize that their childish feuding has robed them both of their beautiful children. Kahn cleverly restores this by staging the prologue as the funeral of the two dead lovers. While the prologue might make a stronger statement with the chorus alone, Kahn gives us Shakespeare’s intended resolution with the families reconciling, albeit too late to save their pride and joys. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing Khan can do to correct Gounod’s most glaring error when he rewrites the ending to give the two lovers a final farewell duet. Shakespeare had it right. It is the height of the tragedy that they are denied this final moment of goodbye―just missing each other by moments. Oh well, it is opera after all. No one dies without singing for a long time first. 

Kahn also paces his stage action to combine the best of theatrical traditions and opera’s unique ability to stop the action and the progression of time. When things are happening in “real time” the stage is busy and populated with real people doing real things. However, when Gounod stops time while the characters musically reflect on what has occurred, such as the dramatic scene after the death of Tybalt, hardly anyone moves at all. Unfortunately, Kahn disturbs his own effect by having a couple of guys awkwardly carry out the two dead bodies. There is absolutely no discernable reason for this to happen since the curtain comes down just a few moments later. The tableau could have easily, and more effectively, remained in place. 

The two protagonists, sung by soprano Lyubov Petrova and tenor Charles Castronovo, are as close to Shakespeare’s intentions as you will get in opera.  Do they look like teenagers? No, but age-appropriate singers simply do not exist as they do for the stage or film actors, such as Zefferelli’s 1968 film version. 

Petrova and Castronovo are young and attractive with French opera-appropriate lyric voices. They a far cry from what we used to get in opera;  such as a middle-aged and spinto-voiced production with a 54-year-old Placido Domingo and full-figured Ruth Ann Swenson spooning. 

Even better than the physical aspects, both of the singers inhabit their characters in a convincing fashion. Petrova is the most consistent. From her first shy entrance to her petulance at being left alive and alone at the end, she is always believable. Vocally, she sings the role marvelously. If the very top notes seem to be slightly forced, it is a minor flaw at most. 

Castronovo is quite dashing, both with his shirt on and with it off. His acting is also excellent and is only marred by his occasional use of “opera singer’s gestures." These include the hand over the heart, the hand to the forehead, and looking like he is holding an invisible apple in front of his eyes while hitting a high note. Once he banishes these stock gestures, he will be truly wonderful in the role. Vocally, he is perfect. He has the ability to sing loudly without tipping over into pushing, and doesn’t try to sound like he has a heavier voice. But his glory is a gorgeous soft voice that is perfectly focused and can easily float a note in any part of his range. The fact that he decided to completely ignore Gounod’s dynamic markings and belt out the reflective aria Ah, lève-toi soleil as though it were Puccini, is regrettable. Of course, most tenors do, but why do what most tenors do if you are capable of doing otherwise? He missed a chance to enchant. 

The rest of the cast was equally strong and looked like the characters they played.  How novel for opera! Scottish bass Robert Lloyd is particularly effective as Friar Lawrence. Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Mercutio, baritone Stephen LaBrie as Paris and tenor Aaron Blake as Tybalt lead a group of realistically rowdy and high-spirited boys from both of the warring clans. Mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell is terrific as Gertrude; bass Stephen Morscheck excellent as Capulet, Juliet’s blustery father, who was just trying to do what he thought was right for his daughter. Mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu is convincing in the pants role of the page Stephano. 

The production, by Claude Girard, is reasonably Renaissance. Candace Evans choreographed the dance sequences with a light hand. The dancers actually look like real people dancing at a party. Bill Lengfelder brings his usual skill to the staging of the fight sequences. 

This brings us to the conductor. Marco Zambelli, in his Dallas opera debut, turned in an impressive and musical reading of the score. The orchestra sounded wonderful. His tempi were dead on and he was always on top of the text; a rarity in opera conductors these days. Except for one brief moment, where Robert Lloyd got away from him, Zambelli was right with his singers every step of the way. His was a romantic reading but he resisted the layer of saccharine schmaltz that we usually get with Gounod. He let the orchestra loose in the big moments but, amazingly, he never once covered the singers. He may have come close, but the voices could always be heard. In the soft sections, he allowed the music to shimmer, as opposed to just getting quiet. Since he was invisible from my seat, I cannot comment on his baton technique. However, no matter what he was doing, there was nothing to complain about in his results.

In the end, he gets my ultimate compliment: Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet is a much better score than I remember it ever being. Thanks For Reading


Jeremy O. writes:
Saturday, February 12 at 11:46AM

The orchestra is always amazing at the Dallas Opera. However, my biggest complaint about this production is the terrible scene changes. One should NEVER leave an audience in the dark and silence for two minutes.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs writes:
Sunday, February 13 at 9:47AM

The scene changes were long because they combined five acts into three so as to only have two intermissions. Back when this opera was written, the intermissions were as important to the audience as the opera itself - see and be seen was all the rage. Now, that many intermissions would put the show into overtime with the union and the audience would have a cow if they didn't get out until midnight.

Judy writes:
Sunday, February 13 at 4:48PM

I was wowed by the performance, regardless of the particular accuracy to the original play. Thanks to all for a lovely evening.

Rhadames writes:
Monday, February 14 at 4:02PM

I enjoyed it a lot. I also have no problems with the 2 minute pause. Scenenography was superb and Romeo was brilliant.

ToscasKiss writes:
Monday, February 21 at 2:55AM

First off, I've got to say I'd take a 54-year-old Placido Domingo any time, thanks, were that still possible (not to take anything away from Mr. Castronovo, who was lovely in voice, form and acting). Saw this Wednesday, Feb. 16, and was mostly pleased and impressed. Agree about the libretto, which often uses such flowery, cliched language to replace Shakespeare's lingustic pearls, which, time-worn as they are, never lose their thrill and enchantment. Didn't care for putting the Capulet-Montague reconciliation scene into the prologue, but I can understand the impulse. This is far from my favorite version of the story, but was still a good entertainment with some lovely melodies. For me, the singing was quite good or better than that, across the board. Very nice to see and hear Ms. Petrova again, after she stole my heart in Nozze di Figaro a couple of seasons ago (that was one of my favorite live productions of all time, not just of operas, but including theater and dance as well). The Mercutio looked a bit more dashing leading man than I picture that character (not a bad thing for him), but sang beautifully. I was especially glad seeing and hearing Stephen La Brie again (looking quite handsome as Paris), who was so impressive in the Opera Guild's vocal competition--was it two years ago? Wasn't terribly bothered by the pauses, and really enjoyed almost every aspect of the production. Two things bugged me, both relating to non-singing roles. The Dallas Opera often appears to have very little regard for such things; some there seem to positively resent it when they have to use dancers, and treat it as an annoying afterthought. (I know of at least two or three times when they put out the word in mid- or even late-November that they required male dancers for productions that began rehearsing immediately and performed in December-January. Newsflash to the D.O.: Any halfway decent male dancer in the DFW area will be all booked up long before then, running around doing sometimes multiple Nutcrackers and other holiday confections. It's not a good time to find good, available female dancers either, though it's a little more possible. Then they complain that Dallas doesn't have good enough dancers. This production didn't require any very technically demanding dancing, but still, it would be nice to have men that could point their feet, and have a little more muscle to them (tights can be so unforgiving to skinny legs). The women were just fine. In any case, is it too much to ask for them to let us know the names of the dancers in the performance? Towards the back of the program, there's a list of all the dancers engaged for the season, but with no indication of which ones dance in which operas (and in some seasons, such lists weren't even complete, anyway). Then there was the casting for the role of Lady Capulet--oy. Though she may be 'just a super' (I don't know, but wouldn't be surprised), Lady C. is somewhat prominent at a few moments, alongside her singing husband, and should be cast accordingly. In terms of physicality, bearing, acting and stage presence, this Lady C. just looked like she did not belong up there. Not something that ruins the show, but a somewhat annoying flaw in a good production.

Ernest Alba writes:
Monday, February 28 at 8:50PM

This review is much more correct than the Dallas Morning News and more erudite to boot. That production was a revelation to me. Who knew the Dallas Opera could mount as sophisticated a production as this? Each time I saw it, I was moved by the performances and only wish they had been filmed for posterity.

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Such Sweet Sorrow
If Gounod’s saccharine take on Romeo and Juliet is the east, then Dallas Opera’s production is the sun.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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