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Friday, December 29, 2006

Starcross'd: Lyric Opera's Charles Gounod's Romeo + Juliet

I don't know anyone who hasn't, at one time or another, expressed a desire to regain some facet of their cultural virginity. I'm not talking about wishing that you'd spent the hours you wasted on the first 300 pages of Bleak House on more fruitful and pleasurable pursuits, like jabbing sharp, rusty things into your groin repeatedly. I do not speak of coming down on the side of death when contemplating "fate worse than" issues with respect to the 4 hours you spent in the Gitmo known as the first Harry Potter movie.

I'm talking in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind terms here. (This is an ironic metaphor as I've never seen said film, and I do most earnestly wish that I'd never lost my Jim Carrey virginity.) A chance to read Fire & Hemlock or Emma or The Edible Woman for the first time, to see The Princess Bride and have a genuine "Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?" moment because it's possible that nobody's going to get Humperdinck.

Much like literal virginity, losing literary virginity isn't all it's cracked up to be, and there's something to be said for a text that knows which buttons to push. Possibly the best of all possible worlds is when one finds oneself yodeling "Oh Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I've Foooooouuunnd Yooou!" upon viewing a known text in an entirely new, quasivirginal light.

This is all my 'round about way of saying I 'get' Romeo and Juliet now.

It's not that I have ever disliked Romeo & Juliet. For your semi-ubiquitous Shakespeare, I come down firmly pro-Hamlet and moderatly anti-A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the old R&J, I've remained a true neutral. I think it's rather clever and lends itself to temporal displacement and oddball staging better than some of the Bard's other work. Once I started teaching Cultural Anthropology, I realized its utility for teaching about kinship and how kin identity can be a prime mover for individual action. But thinking about the story as TEXT—in those terms and those terms only leads one down the path of Eurotrash Madness.

But it's not like I rush out to see it when I learn that it's being staged somewhere nearby. It's rather like To Catch a Thief in that regard: It's always on somewhere, so what's the big rush to watch it right now? But I guess I've been creeping up on a Romeo & Juliet renaissance for a decade now. Credit for getting the ball rolling goes, of course, to Baz Luhrmann for assembling a stellar cast and actually using his updated setting with the play, rather than against or irrespective of it.


More recently, the tragically Rachel McAdams-less R&J subplot of the second season of Slings & Arrows seemed doom to doom the doomed ones once again to "meh" territory. And then Paul Gross went and did it. It's a scene with more lead up than this entry (bear in mind, this is about opera . . . eventually). Geoffrey is dealing with a number of crises in his office. Periodically, the young leads from R&J poke their heads in, looking sweatier and more breathless with each appearance. Each time he sends them off again and we realize that he has them doing laps and push-ups. Ultimately, he keeps them on hand and has them do Act II, scene ii. Not Juliet's soliloquy, but the juicy after bits.

It's a scene so famous and so often done that it's not too surprising it's so often done badly. The most common mistake is pausing for a languid poetic interlude. The pace of the action has been accelerating pretty steadily up to this point, the scene itself takes place immediately (well, almost immediately. Even Lurhmann takes a bite out of the pacing by having Juliet's schmoop go to 11 during her soliloquy) after an aborted manly confrontation, and the stakes are higher than ever. If the world ground to a halt when their eyes met across a crowded room in scene i, it's making up for lost time now, and the frenzy both fuels and is fueled by Romeo and Juliet's passion. Bringing things back around to the To Catch a Thief analogy, it's the critical moment in the Western world's first romantic thriller. Geoffrey evokes that frenetic pace in his actors, and the result is a beautiful moment of clarity that this is not just bloodless, reflective romance, it's raw, in-the-moment sexual desire.

And from here on out, I swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I'm going to talk about Lyric's production of Gounod's opera. My sister-in-law was my ride along for the December 12th performance. Originally my tickets were for December 9th, but M and I were off visiting L and N. I'd note the bitter irony of rescheduling to accommodate the person who abandoned me on the opera-going front, but I'm too delighted that I got to see the performance that I did to even joke about such things.

I'm not sure why Matthew Polenzani was not available for what seem to have been the last three performances, but the 12th marked the beginning of a three-performance run with Massimo Giordano as Romeo. As A and I were looking through the Pompous Booklet, I pointed out that we would be seeing the Special Edition Romeo with the Beautiful Opera Hair. A, after a beat, said, "Strangely, I have no problem with that."

When the "cell phone and pager" man of doom stepped out into a spot, paper in hand, the usual tsk of irritation went up from the crowd. This seemed to be a tsk in principle given that there was no palpable outrage when he announced that Dina Kuznetsova was indisposed and Susanna Phillips would be singing Juliette. A leaned over and said, "That's ok, too, so long as we have the guy with the hair."

It's been my experience that the substitutions work out pretty well. I think L and I were more or less alone in not being heart-broken when we had a replacement for Jane Eaglen in Götterdämmerung. Our reward was seeing Jennifer Wilson in what proved to be a pivotal moment in her career and possibly a pivotal moment for Wagnerian opera.

I can say that this trend held strong and true for this performance of R&J. For Juliette's part, I have enjoyed hearing Dina Kuznetsova grow from her enthusiastic, youthful performance in Cunning Little Vixen to the breadth and depth she displayed in Rigoletto. But I'm always eager to hear new singers, especially when I've enjoyed them in minor roles, as is the case with Susanna Phillips and her performance in Carmen earlier this year. Phillips voice more than matched the promise of her acting, and her acting continued to be a thing of beauty.

But if I'm being completely honest, the happiest coincidence for me in this performance was Romeo. I have nothing against Polenzani, and I'm sure he's a fine singer, but I think that my new tenor boyfriend and I owe him a thank you gift for bringing us together. Giordano truly had me from, "Non!...non! Vous l'avez promis."

If anyone wants to argue that he vocally sinned (and I will fuck your shit up for it), they might cite him for power far exceeding that of any of the other male singers. Truthfully, I couldn't quite believe that it was a tenor reaching the far corners of the place, let alone that the power was accompanied by the kind of warmth and richness that I associate with baritones and basses (hence my antitenor bias). And the fat netting wrapped around that—the truffle bribe atop it—was the complete absence of the blaring, brassy quality that most tenors adopt to convey the drama.

Even if his voice hadn't knocked my . . . erm . . . socks off (remember Bare Feet = Teh Sex), his dramatic performance as Romeo was so right in every way, I couldn't have helped being grateful at the opportunity to see it. In his blurb in the PB, Giordano says, "The portrayal changes according to who one's partner is onstage in this opera. When Juliet's a light soprano, you have to balance with her in a different way than with a lyric. I especially love Romeo because this is a characterization in which you really can show the audience what you can do — and you have so many opportunities to bring them along with you."

Of course this reads, in retrospect, like a prophecy: What would his performance have been like opposite Kuznetsova? I have to admit that if it had been remotely feasible to do so in the manic week leading up to Christmas, I would have scored a ticket to one of the two remaining performances in the hopes of finding out. But I remain more than content with the stellar alignment of Phillips and Giordano. It seems likely that they'd never appreciably rehearsed together before the performance, but having seen it, that's nearly impossible to believe. From their moments of giddy flirtation to the tragic, desperate passion following their wedding night, they matched one another note for note, smile for smile, tear for tear. In light of how eerily well they played off one another, it's worth noting that like Giordano, Phillips' bids fair to rise ever above other performers in terms of vocal power. This happy coincidence not only because this opera is so duet dependent, but also because it serves to set the two apart from all others.

It really is hard to pick a highlight, because the whole performance was pure beauty for me. However, the opening of Act IV of the opera (Act III, scene v of the play) deserves special mention. It's another scene that frequently has violence done to it, oddly enough because all of the play's sexual passion is transferred to it and the growing up that both Romeo and Juliet have had to do since that first innocent moment is lost.

Gounod, with the help of librettists Barbier and Carré, has the opportunity to do a bit of script doctoring, of course. The scene begins not at Juliet's window, but in her bed; turning this on its head, he begins not with the lovers' sweet reluctance to part, but with Juliet repeating to herself that she forgives Romeo, though there is nothing to forgive (and, like another lady, she doth protest too much, methinks). Phillips is beautifully transformed from girl to woman here. She sits rigid on the edge of the bed, though her hair is loose and she is wrapped only in sheets—a perfectly aching mixture of wanton satisfaction, grief, and shock. Her first 7 lines are not monotonous enough for recitative nor melodic enough to be the introduction to the duet, they bear the faintest hint of her forgotten prayer, "This intoxication of youth/Lasts, alas, only for one day!/Then comes the hour/When one weeps. . . . Sweet flame!/Stay in my soul/Like a sweet treasure/For a long time still."

Romeo joins her song only when he hears her declaration of love, but again, Giordano plays it as combination of willful deafness and Romeo's need for reassurance and absolution. There's also a magnificent undercurrent of feeling that they are simply talking past one another. Juliette absolves Romeo of Tybalt's murder because it saved his own life. Romeo seems only to have thought of the danger to his own life after the fact, having avenged Mercutio as a man (and a kinsman) must. Carrying this undercurrent through Giordano is equally adept at injecting just the right touch of passive-aggressiveness into Romeo's "Ah, come then, death! I am staying," even without Shakespeare's pointed "Juliet wills it."


When their duet dissolves into passion (and boy howdy, they must have had sentient or remote-controlled bedsheets, because that was one active and well-blocked love scene between two mostly nekkid [and pretty, did I mention pretty?] people), all the weight of events remains, tinging the scene with melancholy but also with fierce determination. It's a love scene between two people who are learning that there are places in the heart of hearts that need to remain closed even to (especially to) the ones we love most.

And it's not just that I had a fixed idea that this scene simply must be done this way and had that vision validated. It was a truly enlightening moment that made me want to run for my copy of the play the minute the opera was over. (Ok, I'll be honest, it's possible that there might have needed to be some intervening time in my bunk to give the beautiful opera hair its due.)

If I must stop gushing about Giordano and Phillips for a moment, the convergence of Gounod and his librettists, the directorial take of Ian Judge, and the acting chops of Kevin Langan (Friar Laurence) deserve special mention. A few years ago, Second City did The People vs. Friar Laurence: The Man Who Killed Romeo & Juliet. I didn't see it, but the very concept cracked me up. After all, the critical misses in R&J are truly his fault for generating the most be-guy-planned Guy Plan in the history of Guy Plans. Luhrmann's missed DHL delivery (and blown-away delivery-attempt notice) are a nod toward improving this. Gounod writes in a trouser role, Stephano, and does a plot fix by having him killed before he can deliver the message.

It's not Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff overhearing exactly the wrong part of Cathy's speech to Nelly: "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire." Because, after all, she is a whiny bitch, he's a controlling psychotic, and they would've been miserable anyway. It's not even Macbeth getting what he deserves for engaging in the eternally pointless art of prophecy evasion (especially when one has deliberately courted certain aspects of the prophecy). The pointless deaths of Romeo & Juliet are entirely Friar Laurence's fault.

In this production, they take that notion and run with it. It's not that Friar Laurence has anything in particular against the couple. In the marriage scene, Langan masterfully moves from overdrawn buffo lecturing to paternal fondness. But from the moment that Romeo reveals that he is speaking of Juliet, not Rosaline, an idea is born in him. In some sense, he sees the two not as individuals, not as a couple, but as a viable solution to the Montague/Capulet feud, and he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to bring that to fruition:
Yes, had I to confront/ A blind rage,/ I will lend you my help,/ May from your houses/ The age-old hatred/ Be extinguished in your young loves!


There's a subtle emphasis on the hatred and rage over the young love, and from there on out, there is a rigid determination underlying every line of his, no matter how comic. That potential brutality is realized in Act III when he asks the distraught Juliet what is, perhaps, the most unfair question in the history of opera: "So then, death hardly troubles your soul?" and ends his dizzying, fearsome aria with "Do you hesitate?"

I remember being appalled to learn that Marguerite in Gounod's Faust is frequently emotionally gutted when two of her arias are cut. That feeling of "Whatwhatwhat!??!" has nothing on my righteous indignation in learning that Juliette's potion aria, which follows hot on the heels of Friar Laurence's emotional manipulation here, being traditionally cut because Marie Caroline Carvalho, the diva for whom the opera was originally written, didn't feel it suited her voice. Phillips sang the hell out of that aria and in doing so became Juliet incarnate. Absolutely magnificent.

You might have noticed that I've completely reversed my usual ways here and have yet to even mention the set, costumes, or other physical trappings of the production. I assure that is simply because I was totally seduced by the beautiful opera hair, the magnificent opera lungs, and the formidable opera chops of the leads. I was, all things considered, a fan of the design after a bit of uncertainty at the outset. John Gunter had these not inconsiderable goals for his set: "Ian Judge and I wanted something spectacular and had the ability to change in itself, but also to have both the light-heartedness and a dangerous feeling." This speaks to a unity of vision within the production, because that's how I'd describe the dramatic performances of the major players, too.

Before the opera begins, there are, literally, two houses, both alike in dignity on stage. These happen to be metal frames of four-story townhouses, sharing a wall at center. On the second floor of each, a blood-red-velvet chair sits with its back to the shared wall. Both A and I said, "Kind of . . . industrial" in skeptical tones. There were also references to the Barbie Town House . . . you know the one, with the "pull it up yourself, bitch" elevator? But as the overture began, these were rotated toward the wings and upstage, like wings being unfurled (very noisy wings, as the supers were doing the moving and things were very squeaky). A few additional pieces in much the same vein were rolled on and suddenly the vast majority of the stage was open space bounded by these wire-frame outlines. Six or seven red-glass lanterns hanging from chains were lowered in, and Romeo and Juliet's deathbed was rolled on to left-center, flanked by two pillar candles. In general, the lighting design (with kudos to Nigel Levings) works so well with the transitions that all of the industrial feel vanished once there were players on the stage.

The chorus filed on (again, none too silently, which was an unfortunate detraction from what was otherwise a magnificently sombre scene), candles in hand as they took their places. They filled each floor of the "houses" and the main floor, surrounding the Montagues and Capulets, as they sang the prologue. This same set, of course, needs to be transformed in an instant into a swirling, decadent (for Victorians, anyway) party. This was accomplished by whisking out the creepy lanterns, extinguishing and abandoning the chorus's candles, and moving the deathbed offstage in record time and under the cover of a flurry of chorus members peeling off their black cloaks to reveal stunning Victorian ball gowns in every shade of red imaginable. It was so dramatic and effective that I've literally no idea where the candles or the cloaks went.

This is the basic approach to most of the set. The arch that is formed up-center by the two original "townhouses" serves variously as the entrance to the Capulets' gardens, the passage from one street to another, a private nook for conversation away from the throng of the party, and so on. When a more intimate space is demanded (e.g., the balcony scenes, Stephano's aria outside the Capulet house, or when the Nurse flirts with the servants in the garden), one of the pieces along the wings is rolled further toward center, providing a small space of its own above and apart from action on the main floor and considerably reducing the square footage on the main floor and making that available for more private interactions as well.

There are precious few set pieces other than those permanently set into these metal frame structures. I wouldn't swear to it, but I think I can name the three very deliberate deviations from the otherwise uniform set approach: The first are the chairs that are set on stage as a focal point before the music begins; the second is Romeo & Juliet's crypt, which both begins and ends the opera; and the third is Juliet's bed, which is set on the main stage, down right. It is backed by a lush, red velvet curtain hanging from the top of (and, by extension, masking entirely) the metal frame structure behind it. Although I think it was a lovely note and worked well in the context of the design, I did have a bit of a giggle about it, because Gunter also designed Otello in 2001-2002, which was notable for exactly the same bed set up as the backdrop for Desdemona's "Ave Maria."

Other than the party scene, the costumes were not particularly notable. I don't mean that in a damning (or even damning with faint praise) way. They worked well with the set, they flattered the performers, and they added in every way to every scene. About the only complaint I would lodge against Tim Goodchild would be in reference to Juliet's party dress, which had fooferaw that went to 11. It was a dreadful layer-cake style that was all too authentically Victorian. Phillips did not look especially good in it, and it came near impinging on her movement during the opening of her waltz. But then again, it was made for Kuznetsova, so I withdraw even that small complaint.

The rest of the cast, other than my beloveds, whom I've discussed in sufficient, gushing detail, was strong for the most part. I've noted that GIordano's power put Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris at something of a disadvantage, but it's worth noting that the performers (Christopher Feigum, Bryan Griffin, and Phillip Dothard, respectively) did themselves more than proud when not singing up against him. Feigum's "Queen Mab" aria also allowed him to show off his own acting chops. Wayne Tigges as Capulet embraced Gounod's vision of Capulet as a comic character with some tendencies toward peacemaking, which breathed some much-needed depth and believability into his descent into rage after Tybalt's murder.

Meredith Arwady was a true stand out as the Nurse (or Lady Gertrude as she's called here). She's broad and bawdy as easily as she is scolding and maternal. Her affection for Juliet is palpable, and the fact that Juliet herself will never grow to be such a comfortably not-quite-faded beauty is unexpectedly poignant.

I wish I'd gotten around to writing this up sooner, because I feel like I've lost a dozen vital details about this production. I'm sad that its run is over.

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