IN: Reviews

Ah! Spring! Time for Roméo et Juliette


Left to right- Gertrude (Amy Oraftik), Roméo (John Irvin) and Juliette (Chelsea Basler) and Friar Laurence, (Heath Sorenson) (Boston University Photography)

We’re yet not sure about spring this year, but meanwhile, by all means indulge yourself in the traditional seasonal sentiments and go hear/see the Boston University Opera Institute production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the BU Theatre on Huntington Avenue, Thursday, April 21 (the performance I heard), through Sunday, April 24. You’ll forget about all the bad rap you have ever heard about late-nineteenth-century French music and will simply wallow in this glorious, romantic opera. There are alternating casts for Thursday/Saturday, and Friday/Sunday

The libretto was written by prolific team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré during the first three months of 1865, closely following Shakespeare’s text, apparently using none of the existing French translations of his play. The BU production was sung in French with uncredited English supertitles that unfortunately did not at all reflect Shakespeare’s original — except for the one line in Act II, “Parting is such sweet sorrow…” Gounod began drafting the opera the following month (April), and finished in July, taking over a year to orchestrate it and add an extensive wedding tableau to Act IV, considerably — and probably wisely — shortened here. There were many changes during the original rehearsals: all the spoken dialogues were turned into compelling recitatives; the choral prelude was added, as was Juliette’s familiar Waltz aria, “Je veux vivre,” a concession to the Juliette of the first performance during the Exposition Universelle in 1867 at the Théâtre Lyrique. The opera immediately became a hit in Paris, London (Covent Garden), New York (Academy of Music), and throughout Europe. Its popularity in this country has dimmed compared to its continuing luster in France, although it was revived at the Metropolitan Opera last month.

The Opera Institute at BU, directed by Sharon Daniels, was founded in 1987 by then Dean Phyllis Curtin, who is still an artistic advisor. It is a “post-graduate institute for the advanced singer preparing for an operatic career.” Twelve are chosen to participate in a two-year residency for the transitional period between student and professional performance.

As student performances go, this one, conducted by William Lumpkin, is about as “professional” as you can get. All the soloists in this performance deserve high praise both for their singing and acting abilities. The chorus members sang well, but their stage business was a bit awkward, particularly in the ballroom dance routines no doubt unfamiliar to this generation. My impression is that the stage director finally gave up and had them doing a Hava Nagila as they exited from the ball in Act I.

Roméo (John Irvin) and Juliette (Chelsea Basler), on the other hand, were spectacular singers and actors, especially in this production where costumes were deliberately ambiguous (period + modern dress), and love scenes explicit (undressed in bed) but tasteful. Ms. Basler’s voice is a mature dramatic coloratura, with an easy soaring range that is comfortable without ever straining. Mr. Irvin’s tenor voice also lies in a comfortable lyric range, also never strained, but unfortunately frequently overwhelmed by the augmented trombones of the BU Chamber Orchestra that Gounod seemed to pair with him all too often. The duets written for Roméo and Juliette were ravishing in their hands, and their voices well matched.

Vocally the most engaging supporting role was played by Roméo’s page, Stephano, a demanding “pants” role sung here by soprano Rachel Hauge, who as a Montague, has a long coloratura solo in Act III taunting the Capulets. Juliette’s father was well sung and acted by bass Adam Cannedy, particularly in Act I but a little blandly later. Lady Capulet’s nephew, Tybalt, was vigorously sung and well portrayed by the nimble tenor Martin Bakari. The somewhat boring role vocally of Friar Laurence, who secretly performs a brief wedding of the two lovers, was resonantly sung with appropriate dignity by bass Heath Sorenson. Roméo’s friend, Mercutio, who sings only in the first act, but is mortally injured in the third, was perfectly sung and acted by baritone Christian Smith-Kotiarek.

The BU Chamber Orchestra was just terrific: well in tune, and stylishly of the period. They were quite spread out in the sunken pit, with a few of the instruments at floor level. Kudos in particular to one of the latter, harpist Gréta Ásgeirsson, who played almost constantly as both a recitative accompanist and as part of the full orchestral ensemble.

The sets were well designed by Christopher Dills for simplicity of change, with the same basic flats throughout, well lighted by Aaron Sherkow with many ungelled lighting instruments and an unobtrusive follow spot. Just before Act III began I looked up toward the ceiling to see one of the luminaires flailing around wildly. Evidently it had become loose or aimed the wrong way, and someone was anxiously trying to heave it back up to where it belonged before the Act began; success in the nick of time.

To come around full circle, this production is well worth the trip and the time, if nothing else, for the sheer reveling in this appealing musical drama. The house was packed, and the cast held for many bows to standing ovation.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.






7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was lucky enough to attend the performance this evening. The leads alternate for the four performances; so tonight’s Romeo was Clayton Hilley, and Juliette, Ruth Hartt. Hartt alerted BMInt to this production so we could inform our readers, for which we thank her.

    The music is gorgeous, wonderful lyric melodies, orchestration with much use of the harp. The church scene is redolent of Bach cantatas, the funeral of Juliette, a requiem. And that famous waltz! Beautiful duets. Etc. As conductor William Lumpkin concurred after the performance, “It is a greatly, greatly under-rated score.”

    The production tried a novelty, placing Acts I and II in Medieval dress and Acts III, IV, and V in “modern” dress. The two time periods were surprisingly (for me) effective, simply by not getting in the way of the story. They simply conveyed the timelessness of the drama.

    Hartt has a lovely voice and a super stage presence, portraying Juliette with thoroughly believeable acting, singing with great sensitivity to the story. Hilley also has a beautiful voice. Nothing wrong with most of the rest of the cast, either. And the chorus to boot.

    The BU/Huntington Theatre is a good venue and the right size for opera. It is well worth attending one of the two remaining performances, tomorrow with the cast reviewed here, and Monday night, with the cast I saw this evening.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — April 23, 2011 at 12:12 am

  2. Ed. Note: Thanks to the observant comment of reader, Michael Beattie, BMInt editor, Bettina Norton was induced to attended last night’s performance where she determined that William Lumpkin actually conducted.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 23, 2011 at 10:09 am

  3. I agree with “Toni” Norton that the BU Theater gives its audiences a close-up experience for opera, but alas it is 1/2 the size needed to make opera work economically in professional productions.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

  4. The BU productions are the best value for your operatic dollar in the Boston area by far – although NEC isn’t far behind.

    The supertitles were in fact credited in the program. I don’t have it handy, but I’m sure they were there.

    The voices were wonderful. But, to put things in a little perspective: this was a student production and you heard student voices – very good student voices to be sure. On Saturday Mr. Irvin’s voice seemed to be wearing out in the last act – perhaps from trying to be heard over the brass section. Heath Sorenson’s voice was a wonderful surprise – he wasn’t called on to do much, but he brought something special to what he was given to sing: a very large, relaxed, and beautiful deep bass voice I’d be more than happy to hear again.

    Comment by Ed — April 25, 2011 at 10:12 am

  5. Still a fine theater for performing, hearing, and seeing opera. Producing is another matter, but who suggested it for professionals?

    Not sure the first 2 acts were in medieval dress. Wasn’t that just masked ball attire?

    Sunday afternoon’s performance was a delight. They deserve a larger audience. Maybe they need to do a deal with some opera company subscribers as NEC does with Opera Boston.

    Comment by Bill — April 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

  6. Well, we’ll get it right eventually. Yes, it was “masked ball dress,” complete with a hoop skirt (not yet invented in Medieval times) for Juliette. And indeed William Lumpkin was conducting. He was not to be seen in the pit from where I sat (E-114), but I could see the same monitors the cast could see above my head. Like all flat-screen monitors, they distort what can be seen from directly under them. Thus it didn’t look like Lumpkin, so I took a (wrong) guess despite what the program said. As for the super-titles, they were indeed credited to Allison Voth, who was also responsible for “Musical Preparation,” and was also Chorus Master. According to the program notes about her, she is principally known as a vocal coach, but also a “recognized supertitlist.” My apologies to all concerned.

    Comment by Mary Wallace Davidson — April 29, 2011 at 7:47 pm

  7. I was at the Saturday April 23rd performance. A wonderful experience and at a discount as a BU January 1974 grad. All around neck and neck as the Best Thing this year with Agrippina, but Maria Padilla is coming up. Sad that I have missed them before now; an ad in an opera program is how I found out about this performance. (Years ago The Phoenix used to tell us of these upcoming things but now it wastes its paper on Rock drivel and escort services.)
    The shallowness of the BU theater serves to put one in the middle of the action; the balcony scene was right in front of me and Juliette was powerful; Romeo looked just like a teenager and overpowered by Juliette almost sounded like one. But the combination worked dramatically and as an entertainment/production I wouldn’t be surprised to see R&J make the Ten Best list this December.
    The translation for the supertitles. The librettist changed the plot to mke the story work better as an opera and probably NOT using the well-known words of the play was the better thing. The ending of the opera is so much different than the play: no mass scene with the Montagues and the Capulets and the Duke breaking in and discovering the bodies of R&J and the County Paris. Instead having R&J die in each other’s arms in the tomb (shades of Aida) presumably to be discovered in some future age: A beautifully composed and performed scene but the idea took a little getting used to,
    Only thing lacking: the program had absolutely no background info on the opera. Had to find out that it was written in 1867 by discussing with the young people around me on the balcony; that year’s exposition was probably involved and later research confirmed that was the case. Gounod is a One-and-a-Half Opera composer: Name an opera by him: FAUST! of course. Name another opera by him, er, Romeo et Juliette? Did he write any more? Yes, it turns out: Mirielle (1863), but everything he wrote after R&J didn’t do that well and outside of France no one knows about the others except for a few musicologists.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 2, 2011 at 1:13 am

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