Virginia Opera’s superb ‘Roméo et Juliette’ lives on

Intricate co-production, to be seen next by Toledo Opera audiences, is an example of excellence achieved through artistic cooperation among small companies.

Roméo (Jonathan Boyd) and Juliette (Marie-Eve Munger) in the classic ballet scene from Gounod's operatic version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo courtesy Virginia Opera)

RICHMOND, Virginia, February 25, 2016 – The Virginia Opera’s wonderful, grand opera-era production of French composer Charles Gounod’s somewhat neglected 1867 classic, “Roméo et Juliette,” ended its statewide run at Richmond’s Carpenter Center this past weekend. Based, with occasional variations, on Shakespeare’s immortal romantic tragedy of two star-crossed young lovers, this operatic masterpiece is about as lush and voluptuous as 19th century opera gets.

We had attended a performance a bit earlier this month during its brief weekend stay at Northern Virginia at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax City—on Valentine’s Day, no less—and were quite impressed by the quality of the orchestra and singers as well as the unusual opulence of this production. It brought back those thrilling days of yesteryear when “grand” was still a very important part of grand opera.

It's party time chez Capulets in the recent Virginia Opera production of Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette." (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Opera)
It’s party time chez Capulet in the recent Virginia Opera production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Opera)

Today, productions are often “updated” to near-contemporary time, the better to employ modern dress and contemporary scenery—i.e., inexpensive, mono-colored, angular sets. Granted, those opera companies that survived the Great Recession—Virginia Opera experienced a close call—had to trim expenses, use cheaper scenery and schedule more old favorites (like endless seasons of “La Bohème” and “Così fan tutte”) each year just to survive.

That’s why this recent production of “Roméo” proved such a delicious change of pace. Augmented by strikingly artistic projected imagery, the production’s impressively large sets were dramatically reconfigured for each act—an increasing rarity in today’s opera world where a single stage setting must suffice for the whole show.

Better yet, the medieval period costuming in this production was both sumptuous and colorful, with untold yards of expensive fabric embellishing the elegantly lavish pageantry in those scenes involving massed choral singing, dancing and swordplay. It was impossible to take your eyes off the medieval pomp and magnificence that washed across the stage with every move in every scene.

A multi-city production

How can a smaller opera company manage to stage such a lavish production in 2016? The answer is relatively simple: it’s a co-production.

In and of itself, that’s not really news. Even many larger companies with bigger budgets, like our own Washington National Opera will frequently share the costs of a new production with another opera company to save money while improving quality.

But the Virginia Opera’s co-production with Opera Carolina actually involved several companies as investors/participants, including the Toledo Opera, Opera Grand Rapids and Lyric Opera Baltimore, the latter of which has brought opera back to that city after the 2009 bankruptcy of a predecessor company.

As the production finishes in one locale, it (and many of the same singers) eventually moves along to the next venue. This process helps guarantee steady employment for the principal singers (not every opera singer has a career like Plácido Domingo). It also serves to amortize some of the costs for even an unusually grand suite of sets among several regional companies, none of which could support this kind of opulence on its own.

The Virginia Opera performances

Eye candy aside, much of this production’s success here was due to its fine lead singers. We are, of course, referring to Roméo (tenor Jonathan Boyd) and Juliette* (soprano Marie-Eve Munger) as well as nurse Gertrude (mezzo Susan Nicely) Mercutio (baritone Efrain Solis), Tybalt (tenor Kyle Tomlin) and Frère Laurent (Friar Laurence; bass Kevin Langan).

Tybalt (Kyle Tomlin) breathes his last in the Virginia Opera's "Roméo et Juliette." (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Opera)
Tybalt (Kyle Tomlin) breathes his last in the Virginia Opera’s “Roméo et Juliette.” (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Opera)

In the opera as in Shakespeare’s original, the effectiveness of an entire production—even a costly and beautiful one—hinges on the emotional believability of its doomed lovers. By that score, Jonathan Boyd and Marie-Eve Munger score high on the applause meter. Their stage chemistry together here was outstanding, right from their characters’ first dazzling encounter. They draw you into the story so completely that their familiar tragedy unfolds like something entirely new and unforeseen.

It certainly helped that both are also excellent singers, projecting their respective roles with great conviction, tremendous vocal support and nuance and excellent French diction.

Their fellow leads also excelled both in characterization and singing. Efrain Solis’ Mercutio and Kyle Tomlin’s Tybalt were superb and convincing as the key pair of bristling rivals representing the dueling Montague and Capulet families. In major supporting roles, Susan Nicely’s genial Gertrude and Kevin Langan’s wily, worldly but compassionate Friar Laurence also shone brightly, with Mr. Langan’s portrayal of the priest coming across as particularly astute, given the authority of his surprisingly clear bass register.

The Virginia Opera Chorus—which seemed a bit larger than usual in this production—was at its best when we heard them here in Fairfax, with an uncanny accuracy and richness of sound we don’t often hear in a chorus, particularly one that’s on the move as often as this chorus was.

In addition, as with the principal singers, the French diction of the chorus was notably crisp and accurate, allowing even a poor French speaker like this critic to understand a most of the lyrics without resorting to those always-helpful projected titles.

Backing up the cast, Bernard Uzan provided unobtrusive but insightful stage direction for this production, keeping his always-on-the-move cast naturally but perfectly aligned to project their voices and coaching his lead pair into giving their all when projecting the intense passion of their mutual love, helping to give this operatic production all the romantic impact that’s present in a stage production of Shakespeare’s play.

The Virginia Opera Orchestra, under the baton of John Baril in the Fairfax edition of this production, played extraordinarily well and with great precision, rarely if ever stepping on the singers and blending in with the ensemble almost as if it were second nature.

This is one gorgeous, romantic and deeply moving production. Opera lovers in Toledo, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Baltimore, Maryland are in for a treat. Caution: Be sure to bring at least three hankies for Gounod’s moving finale.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

As already noted, this co-production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” will be moving to three additional cities this spring. Many, though not all the lead singers in the Virginia Opera production will appear in these cities as well, although orchestra and chorus members will be local. Here’s the spring schedule:

Toledo Opera: Performances will take place on Friday, April 8, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 10, 2016 a 7 p.m. at Toledo’s historic Valentine Theatre (how appropriate!) Both performances will be conducted by James Meena, the Toledo Opera’s principal artistic advisor. He also serves as Opera Carolina’s principal conductor and additionally conducted both the Norfolk and Richmond Virginia Opera performances of “Roméo.”

Tickets and information for Toledo Opera: Visit the Toledo Opera’s website here, or call the box office at 419-255-7464.

Opera Grand Rapids: Performances will take place on Friday, April 29, 2016 and Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. at DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids.

Tickets and information for Opera Grand Rapids: Call the company’s box office at 616-451-2741, or purchase tickets online via Ticketmaster.

Lyric Opera Baltimore: Performances will take place on May 13 at pm and May 15 at pm at the Lyric, aka the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric in Baltimore.

Tickets and information for Lyric Opera Baltimore: Tickets available via the Ticketmaster link here, although the thru-link was malfunctioning in at least two web browsers when we tried them. Alternatively, tickets are available at the Lyric’s Box Office, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tu-F or two hours prior to performance. Also available by phone at 410-547-SEAT.

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