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Gounod’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is woefully more French than Shakespearean at Lyric Opera

The first conclusion you might reach after watching Lyric Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” — the 1867 opera by Charles Gounod, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre based on the Shakespeare play — is that the French should be forbidden from adapting the work of the Bard.

Either Gounod and his collaborators received a truly dreadful and wholly misguided translation of the work, or, they were still smarting from the English defeat of the French armies in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and decided to trample over one of his other most famous plays.

‘ROMEO AND JULIET’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through March 16

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $20 – $399

Info: (312) 827-5600; www.lyricopera.org/romeo-and-juliet

Run time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

Whatever the case, they took Shakespeare to the patisserie, turning one of the great tragedies about the devastation wreaked by civil strife into a romance motored by the most florid verbiage — lacking all the bite, bitterness and impulsiveness of the original play. Of course no one would deny that “Romeo and Juliet” is a story of passionate young lovers who pay the price for defying the rigidity and insanity of enduring clan warfare. But “Cyrano de Bergerac” it is not. And to make this story believable, the tension between the Montagues and Capulets must be palpable throughout, with the male egos of each clan ready to detonate at any moment.

Director Bartlett Sher’s production (seen in Salzburg and at La Scala, with sets and costumes on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where it will be part of the 2016-17 season), has failed to rescue Gounod’s work. And this is surprising given that he has brought such gravitas to Broadway revivals of “The King and I,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “South Pacific,” and to the original production of “The Light in the Piazza.”

To understand how wrong-headed this opera is you need only listen to the power, majesty and brilliant emotional clarity of Prokofiev’s ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet.” It tells the story Shakespeare wanted told.

The irony is that the Lyric production (in French, with English supertitles) begins with a stunningly stylized prologue that seems on-target. Set against the weighty, handsome Italian Renaissance buildings of Verona (the architectural trompe l’oeil vision of Michael Yeargan), the rich and powerful families of the city file in with great formality and foreboding, with masked commedia dell’arte characters among the crowd.

Joseph Calleja is Romeo and Susanna Phillips is Juliet in the Lyric Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
Joseph Calleja is Romeo and Susanna Phillips is Juliet in the Lyric Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

But once this ends the storytelling turns to sentimental mush. Adding to the problem is the fact that Romeo and Juliet must capture the lovers’ youth, and despite the best efforts of Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips (whose voices are warm and full, if something short of breathtaking, but blend well in their duets), they both feel like thirtysomethings trying to reignite their adolescence. (In a rare example of misguided costuming by designer Catherine Zuber, she has given Juliet a shocking pink tulle gown more fitting for a Disney princess in which to sing the beautiful waltz, “Je veux vivre” (“I want to live”).

Beyond this, the crucial supporting characters often get lost. Romeo’s fiercely loyal, hot-tempered friend, Mercutio (baritone Joshua Hopkins), has his moments, but they are few, so when he is killed by Juliet’s equally tempestuous cousin, Tybalt (tenor Jason Slaydon), it is difficult to care much, though it should be devastating. Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet (Philip Horst), should be an authoritarian presence, but is now a sugar daddy with a French wig.

Friar Laurence (Christian Van Horne), who gives Juliet a pseudo-suicide potion, has the right ascetic look for his character. Juliet’s earthy nurse (Deborah Nanstell), gets lost in the shuffle, and though nameless in Shakespeare’s play, is here called Gertrude, like Hamlet’s mother. The production’s finest voice belongs to Marianne Crebassa, the French mezzo playing the pants role of Romeo’s servant, Stephano (a character who does not appear in the play). The chorus has relatively little to do, but always sounds lustrous, as does the orchestra, under Emmanuel Villaume.

And then there is the excruciatingly long and muddled suicide scene, also quite a departure from Shakespeare’s far finer version. Let’s just say it is a very long kiss goodbye. And very wrong.

My advice? Catch the Joffrey Ballet’s stunningly modern version of the story (to the Prokofiev score) during its 2016-17 season at the Auditorium Theatre.

Note: Eric Cutler will play Romeo on March 11 and 19.

Susanna Phillips (center, in shocking pink gown) in a scene from the Lyric Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)
Susanna Phillips (center, in shocking pink gown) in a scene from the Lyric Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)