Charles Gounods Roméo et Juliette grabs your attention right from the start. The dark, neogothic mood is set immediately, as the main characters and black-clad chorus enact a solemn, silent tableaux with the orchestra thrumming out its ominous prelude. Well, what else would you expect from an opera production set in a 20th-century funeral home? But, perhaps to the surprise of some, it works.
Opera purists dont always like what goes on at Spoleto, where cutting-edge interpretations are common fare. They cant comfortably transpose the timeless qualities (and failures) of human nature into whatever era we happen to live in. And the establishment keeps offering productions in the composers own antique period trappings, and opera audiences continue to shrink. Sure, some modern adaptations work better than others, and this is one that works very well.
Artistic directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil craft an unsettling dreamscape of latter-day mafia dons and enforcers and rival gangs, operating out of an upscale mortuary. Carol Baileys cunning sets fold and dovetail into each other from one act or scene to another unmasked by curtains evolving seamlessly into fresh stage vistas before our eyes. Rick Martins mostly subdued lighting preserves an aura of unrelenting gloom throughout, save for the few lively and colorful social scenes. Stage direction is well-planned and convincing. The rowdy fight sequences are perfectly choreographed. It helps that the antagonists are all young and athletic.
And the glorious music holds it all together like honeyed glue. Under conductor Tommaso Placidis deft direction, the crack players of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra keep rich sonic tapestries pouring from the pit. The fabled Westminster Choirs chorus work is sweet and flawless. The show flows well, despite a few moments early on when it seems as if whats coming from the pit doesnt quite match the stage action. After scurrilous rumors of frustrating and difficult rehearsals, its a relief to see everything come together so nicely.
Subplot details and symbolism appear in some intriguing ways. We catch crafty, silent window-glimpses of background action (like Juliettes tearful rejection of her Daddys arranged marriage to Paris), even while other things are happening onstage. Well-placed props and stark sets keep the funeral-home ambience intact like the modern mortuary lab (complete with corpse!) that serves as the Friars lair. You can almost smell the embalming fluid and see his powerful potions being brewed there. Three mysterious ladies from the chorus, garbed as grieving widows, are a frequent, often shadowy presence that keep us mindful of dire fates inexorable workings.
And, ah, the soloists. The title roles are beautifully filled. Nicole Cabells buttery, gleaming soprano caresses the ear nonstop, and she shows a true divas instincts onstage. She manages the transition from giddy young girl to fate-stricken woman very credibly. Her delivery of the harrowing potion aria with its own mini-mad scene is potent, vocally spectacular, and utterly convincing. Shes a true star in the making.
Frédéric Antoun is the perfect moonstruck adolescent. His rich tenor is smooth and even from top to bottom, despite a slight airy quality to some of his highest notes. His soft pianissimo passages are to die for. This young man was born to sing the French repertoire he handles the language better than anybody (no surprise from a French Canadian).
None of the rest of the cast disappoints, either. Among Romeos sidekicks, mezzo Christine Abraham offers cheeky swagger in her pants-role as Stephano, and baritone Kevin Greenlaw is a dazzling Mercutio his Queen Mab scene is funny and sharp, with just a whiff of soft-porn obscenity. Veteran mezzo Jane Shaulis is a touching Nurse.
All the remaining roles are for the men. Festival regular Brian Mulligans rich baritone makes for a meaty Capulet, and tenor Victor Ryan Robertson is a sinister Tybalt. Bass Rosendo Flores gives us a solemn and sonorous Friar Laurent. Among the lesser roles, baritone Trevor Byron Scheunemann handles Grégorio well, Stephen Gaertner dispatches his role as Paris nicely, and Marc Schowalter does fine as Benvolio.
Gounod certainly exercised artistic license here, altering the final Shakespearean scenario so that the young lovers get to die in each others arms, singing all the while. How else could he end the opera but with a dual swan-song? Grand opera is full of final scenes where consumptive ladies and heroes choking on their very life-blood still manage to pour out vocal glory. Only the finality of death can silence operatic protagonists.
Opera strikes many as an impossibly artificial and contrived medium. But as our star-crossed lovers expire songfully in each others arms, we once more feel the power of art to wrack the emotions, to bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. For a couple of very special hours, it makes helpless believers of us all. Or at least, so the raucous standing ovation from an entranced full house seems to suggest.ROMÉO ET JULIETTE Spoleto Festival USA May 29 at 2 p.m.; June 3, 9 at 8 p.m. Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. 579-3100