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.