Chicago Opera Theater

Many great and lesser composers have written music for Romeo and Juliet. Although many of these works succeed on some level, none of them manages to capture all the subtlety and complexity of the play. For sheer color and imagination, there is Berlioz’s orchestral suite. For drama and power, there is nothing to top the Prokofiev ballet score. The Tchaikovsky Fantasy Overture has become a romantic cliche. And of course there’s the infamous theme from the Zeffirelli film.

Likewise, Romeo and Juliet has been given many operatic settings, but few of them have been successful adaptations. In fact, there are no operas based on a Shakespeare play that can in any real sense be said to capture the poetic essence of the original, however close they stay to the plot outline (and few manage even the refinement of Cliff Notes). Yet even if you strip a Shakespeare play down to its plot in the broadest sense of the word, you are still left with a story that is loaded with conflict and drama–perfect stuff for the opera house. Verdi’s greatest operas–those in which the music and the drama are so magnificently intertwined that one is as important as the other–are both based on plays by Shakespeare: Otello and Falstaff.

Only three operas based on Romeo and Juliet are still being performed with anything approximating regularity: Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. (Though some would scoff at my calling West Sidle Story an opera, that’s what it is, as Bernstein’s recording of the work four years ago with an operatic cast demonstrated.)

Although Gounod’s setting was very popular in as day, it fell out of favor somewhere along the way–perhaps in part because there were few opera singers who were technically capable of singing the lead roles who could still play youthful lovers. That problem has been more than adequately solved in the Chicago Opera Theater’s 15th-anniversary production of the opera, which features two talented, young, American singers who not only sing up a storm, but who make a handsome young couple.

Korean soprano Jung Ae Kim made an elegant and graceful young Juliet, and she possesses a formidable technique that was always up to the demands of Gounod’s score, which is riddled with difficult coloratura runs and trills. Kim delivered them with great passion and color, and her beautiful sound remained consistent throughout. Although she was often difficult to understand and had a tendency to arrive on the last note of an elaborate passage slightly under pitch, these are minor nor flaws that can be easily corrected over time.

Tenor Gregory Kunde, probably best known to Chicago audiences for his fine portrayal of Cassio in Lyric’s 1985 Otello, was a dashing Romeo with a superb voice. Although Kunde’s sound was not very large–he was drowned out by Kim in duet scenes and tended to strain when he pushed for power–his timbre is very open and pleasing, and he was always easy to understand.

I would have liked more dramatic interplay between Kim and Kunde, who both appear to be fine actors. On opening night they had great difficulty connecting, and I found it hard to believe that they were falling in love in act one or that they were in love during the rest of the opera. I would expect that from the Lyric or the Met, but Chicago Opera Theater’s artistic director Alan Stone usually puts a high premium on the theatrical side of his productions. In contrast, the nurse (mezzo-soprano Lee Starr) and Juliet connected beautifully vocally and dramatically in their scenes.

All of the roles in this splashy production were very well sung and easily understood, but special mention must be made of mezzo-soprano Carol Madalin in the trouser role of Romeo’s page Stephano, a character added by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre. She stole the second act with her brief but gorgeously sung aria, which is meant to arouse the Capulet household, and then followed with an impressive display of swordsmanship. The ensuing fights between Mercutio and Tybalt (baritone Stephen Lusmann and tenor Jeff Martin) and Romeo and Tybalt, choreographed by Tim Frawley, were very well staged even by theatrical standards.

The sets were a bit minimal. The wedding in the cell of Friar Lawrence (bass Stefan Szkafarowsky) had as a backdrop a lot of uncontrolled smoke and six candles, one of which would not stay lit despite Szkafarowsky’s best efforts to relight it. The tomb was little more than a single slab, making Juliet’s fear that she would wake up next to her dead cousin unwarranted. The costumes were appealing, but not very colorful; virtually all of them were in shades of burgundy and magenta, and were often lit with yellow lights that washed out other colors.

The orchestra and chorus were expertly conducted by Mark Flint, who got an incredibly large and well-balanced sound from a small number of singers and players; the original was intended as grand opera in the largest sense. The chorus was superb–it could be clearly understood and shone particularly in the powerful prologue. Even though the string sound within the orchestra was a bit thin and sometimes unfocused (the viola section was weak and scrappy), the overall sound was beautiful. Flint kept the score moving along at a good pace, never wallowing needlessly, as most conductors are apt to do with such a blatantly Romantic score.

What was most remarkable about this production was not just that COT is able to present such an impressive display of grand opera despite its limited resources, but that it can make such a convincing case for Romeo and Juliet. The work is often dismissed as second-rate and overly sentimental; in fact Gounod is usually considered a one-opera (Faust) composer. Yet this production was full of beautiful music, wonderful singing, and fast action–and was far more entertaining than many Fausts I have seen, including the most recent Lyric production last season. If such fine productions of Romeo and Juliet became commonplace, there might be some serious rethinking about Gounod’s place in operatic history.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.