It takes a village to raise an opera. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that it’s been 20 years since the the Boston Lyric Opera played on Boston Common. Whatever the reason, the show rewarded the wait as last night, BLO presented an outstanding production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette under a cool and cloudy sky.
BLO and the estimable Commonwealth Shakespeare Company which recently completed its annual run of Shakespeare on the Common, collaborated on this show. BLO utilized the stage and staging from that production to represent Verona and also to allow the largeish orchestra to play in full view of the audience, with the chorus peeking over the top of the stage area as needed like angels.
Hats off to Dramaturg John Conklin for adapting a work that usually runs about 3 hours to a manageable and understandable 2 hours (plus intermission). It helps that everyone already knows the story, but Conklin wove into the presentation some explanatory bridges and bits of actual Shakespeare declaimed by actors clothed in Elizabethan garb, either speaking the real Shakespeare lines or reading sonnets over the obligatory ballet music and musical interludes. Far from distracting from the opera, these really enhanced the drama. Kudos for effort with Edmund Tracey’s English translation; nobody can match Shakespeare for lyrical beauty. Sometimes it’s really better to hear an opera in a language that one doesn’t know too well. You don’t go to opera for the libretto.
Nancy Leary’s costumes were worth seeing all on their own. With flavors of Moschino, Chagall, visions of Commedia Dell’Arte marionettes, and perhaps Madonna circa 1985, the dancers at the Capulet ball in their colorful bohemian dresses and chunky sneakers would look equally at home on any high fashion runway. Juliet’s dresses looked as simple and innocent as the character herself, and Romeo’s street punk, graffiti-covered prints suggested a bad boy looking for adventure.
In a time that has seen too much violence, the beautifully stylized stage fighting did not require a trigger warning. Mercutio’s demise was particularly well-executed.
The strong and notably diverse cast provided a refreshing sight in a genre that has seldom been so mixed in the past. In the secondary roles, baritone Nicolas LaGesse as Mercutio and mezzo Mack Wolz really stood out. His energy and stage presence that drew the eye, and his strong voice pleased the ear and created an entirely believable as Mercutio. Wolz brought a compelling stage presence, and a wonderful voice to the sprightly role of Stephano, mischievously taunting Tybalt and essentially instigating the duel that led to his death. Wolz would make an excellent Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Cherubino in La Nozze di Figaro. Hear both these singers while you can; they’re going places.
Phil Lima as Father Laurent deserves special mention for the emotion he conveyed as he was listening to Romeo describe his love for Juliet, when the day before he had been moping over Rosaline. He looked amused, horrified, thoughtful, supportive—all without uttering a word. In addition to being a fine singer, he’s a superb actor.
Ricardo Garcia as Romeo and Vanessa Becerra as Juliet put across the youthful energy and beautiful voices needed for these demanding roles. Both executed their well-known arias (Ah! Leve’-toi, soleil and Je veux vivre in the original language) with aplomb. Becerra especially relaxed vocally into the role in the second act, gracefully singing Juliet’s roulades and high notes. Their death and apparent death scene generated poignancy even though Juliet’s revival in the tomb before Romeo expires has stand as one of the more ridiculous scenes in all of opera (yes, you get a great duet, but really, how far do we stretch dramatic license and ruin the tragedy?).
Even with dozens of body mics, it can’t be easy to mix and amplify such large and disparate forces and achieve sound so well-balanced, so bravo! Another bravo to Music Director and Conductor, David Angus. With limited stage space and a “needs must” set up, he had the orchestra sounding as good as if they were in a hall with an ample pit.
If opera is not your thing, there’s still plenty to love. The free price can’t be beat, and it’s a great way to introduce those who don’t know they’re going to love opera’s glories. The second and final show begins at 8:00 on Saturday night on the Boston Common.
Elisa Birdseye, the Librarian of the New Bedford Symphony and an active freelance violist, has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva. She also plays the electric viola in several local bands.