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It's obvious that James Meena has a special fondness for Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, since no other Opera Carolina maestro had ever presented the work before – and now Meena has brought the tragic Shakespeare adaptation back eight seasons later. Both productions have been somewhat star-crossed. When Meena introduced the opera in 2007, the soprano couldn't quite scale the heights of the stave in Juliette's arias and the tenor who adored her couldn't take his eyes off Meena's baton when he sang – a rather wooden Roméo. This time around, weather and illness have been the adversities that Opera Carolina has been forced to conquer. Days ahead of the Sunday afternoon opening, forecasts of the super storm that would cripple the city caused Opera Carolina to offer special discounts for intrepid ticket buyers willing to brave the elements. My driveway was still so encased in ice at curtain time that my wife Sue and I couldn't reach the street at the top of the hill where we had parked our car. After rescheduling for Thursday, we had barely settled into our seats at Belk Theater when we learned from Meena that the soprano slated for the title role, Marie-Eve Munger, had come down with bronchitis, sounding less like Juliette than Friar Laurence when the conductor had spoken to her earlier in the day.
There was a positive twist to this adversity. Although I had missed Munger's debut, I caught the first performance by Sarah Joy Miller with the company. Slated to perform as Juliette when this co-production moves on to Grand Rapids in April and Baltimore in May, Miller not only appeared to be acclimated to the role and Bernard Uzan's stage direction, she also appeared comfy in the clinches with Jonathan Boyd, who will be paired with Miller in those upcoming productions. In contrast with the 2006 Spoleto Festival USA production, which remodeled the two ancient warring Montagues and Capulets into families in the Godfather mold, both of the Opera Carolina productions have been refreshingly traditional. You might even say radically traditional, since the supertitles of the current production reverted to the original Shakespeare whenever possible, even at the cost of mistranslating the French of librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Production design by Uzan and Michael Baumgarten was nearly as traditional, evoking Verona very much the way old-school Shakespearean productions do. Three sets of Romanesque arches, rearranged and dressed between scenes, served admirably for the Capulet palace, Juliette's balcony, Juliette's bedroom, Friar Laurence's chapel, and that gloomy vault where Roméo finds the sleeping Juliette on her tomb. Baumgarten's lighting and his superb projection designs also helped to differentiate the scenes.
While Gounod and his librettists will bring down the curtain when the two lovers perish, Uzan contrived to stage the aftermath – the grim reconciliation of the feuding families – as this production's prologue, where Shakespeare originally had his chorus. While this necessitated an extra scene change, whisking away the tomb where the dead lovers lie and bringing the lights back up on the festive night when they first met, the alteration played as if that's what Gounod always intended, particularly since he wrote enough gorgeous music to cover the subterfuge and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra played it so lustily under Meena's baton. Nor was it much of a stretch for the Opera Carolina Chorus to sound funereal in the hushed opening passages.
An adequately majestic staircase was placed center stage at the Capulet palace for Juliette's entrance, and the dazzling dress that Miller got to wear throughout this giddy evening for her birthday party made it count. Miller herself was not quite so dazzling when she soon reached Juliette's signature "Je veux vivre dans ce rêve" aria, straining to reach the high notes, getting there but not comfortably. She began to settle down in the iconic first encounter with Roméo: the "Ange adorable" duet, staged chastely with Boyd in a pleasing palm-to-palm style as the lovebirds circled one another.
Boyd sang beautifully and securely all evening long, but the most transporting moment came when he sang Roméo's great "Ah! lève-toi, soleil" to launch the balcony scene. Juliette's nightgown was no less bright than her party dress, dramatically lit by Baumgarten as she made her way into the moonlight, so there could be no mistaking what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, "It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!" It hit with seismic force here, and the "Ah, ne fuis pas encore!" duet that closed the scene was even more enchanting than the lovers' first meeting.
There was considerably more chemistry between Boyd and Miller in this production than there was when Gaston Rivero and Sari Gruber sang the title roles in 2007, and Uzan pushed it in the bedroom scene, where the lovers' awakening was nearly as sensual as the opening scene of Sondheim's Passion. For anyone who thinks that opera is pathologically stiff and glum, this Opera Carolina effort will be an eye-opener. Miller caught fire when we needed it most, carrying us over the climactic aria where Juliette chooses between stabbing herself and drinking Friar Laurence's sleep potion.
Supporting roles are wonderfully cast and sung, mostly by newcomers. Imposing enough to be Shakespeare's Capulet, Ashraf Sewailam was the most impressive of the baritones, expansive in his geniality as party host yet more than sufficiently authoritative as the family patriarch. Efrain Solis obtained maximum mileage from Mercutio's "Queen Mab" ballad, more effective as a satirical cut-up than he was subsequently as a tragic calumniating victim. Remember Romeo's page, Stephano? Of course not. Gounod added her – it's a soprano pants role – to spark the strife between Tybalt and Mercutio before the fatally pacific Roméo arrives and intervenes. Kim Sagioka made a startling debut in this odd cameo. Among the old hands, bass Kevin Langan had all the dignity and warmth we wanted in the helpful Friar, and tenor Brian Arreola was perfectly pugnacious as Tybalt – actually so dashing in his wig and costume that I wished that the Capulets and the Montagues had switched uniforms so that Roméo could look more cavalier.
There's a whole mini-ballet in Gounod's score, 18 minutes long on the EMI Classics recording, that nearly all companies skip, but to me, cutting the next two scenes is a bit like tossing away the baby with the bathwater. After justifiably axing the choreography expense and the dancer payroll, I'd love to see the wedding scene where Juliette drops dead just as Paris is putting the ring on her finger. Soap opera and grand opera unite! We save on having a Friar John in the cast (if the Duke of Verona doesn't double) when we omit the next scene where Friar Laurence learns that Roméo never got the sleep potion memo, but why not leave it in for the few folks who may be coming to the story for the first time? Eric Loftin would certainly approve of restoring the wedding, since the tenor got too little opportunity to show his mettle in his Opera Carolina debut as Paris.
Quibbles aside, this is one outstanding production that has it all: merriment, chaste romance, spectacle, sensual passion, a touch of comedy, and the ultimate tragedy. All the members of this sterling cast and chorus were as much into the drama as they were into the music, and the singers and musicians were constantly feeding off one another. As a result, the three hours joyously flew by.