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A scintillating, convincing portrayal of the adolescent Juliette by soprano Diane McEwen-Martin stood out in an overall very good production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette by the Asheville Lyric Opera on Saturday night. Both this performance and a repeat on Sunday afternoon October 5 were at the intimate Diana Wortham Theatre.
McEwen-Martin commanded attention from her first entrance. She was costumed stunningly and appropriately: a gold dress with a reverse-pleat red panel, full shoulders and sleeves in Act I, a naive dress in Act III, and demure nightgowns where called for. Finally, we had a Juliette who looked the age of the character while vocally delivering the goods in all the major works from the aria, "Je veux vivre dans ce rêve," to the duet with Roméo, "Nuit d'hyménée! Ô douce nuit d'amour!"
Tenor Marcus McConico was Roméo. His voice was disappointing in Act I, sounding particularly strained in the passage "Ô trésor digne des cieux!" He improved throughout the evening, hitting his stride in Act III and being fully satisfying by the time he tackled Act IV's “Nuit d'hyménée.” My diagnosis is that he had not warmed up thoroughly.
Both principals were excellent in their stage actions, as indeed was the whole cast under the able guest director Elise Sandell from Portland, Oregon. Standing out both vocally and in their acting were Mark Owen Davis (Count Capulet) and Amanda Gardner (in the trousers role of the page Stéphano). Jon Truitt (Mercutio) delivered a very satisfying "Queen Mab" aria. The other roles were filled by Brian Banion (Frère Laurent), Bryce Westervelt (Tybalt), Élise Deschamps (Gertrude), Timothy Wilds (Duke), Kevin Richard Doherty (Paris), Dominic Aquilino (Grégorio) and Roberto Flores (Benvolio). With choreography by Ann Dunn, Asheville Ballet dancers Cassie Woods and Lyle Laney provided a stripped-down version of the ballet that the Paris Opera would have expected.
The supertitles suffered from errors. "Tu sais que la nuit te cache mon visage!" means "Night hides my face from you" and not "Night hides you from my face." Also, when Shakespeare has provided great English pentameter, why not use the Bard’s words? "But what light suddenly shines through that window?" is banal compared to "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?"
When you attend an opera given by a nine-year-old company in a small theatre, you anticipate that the orchestra will be of minimal size by comparison to a major opera house production. For this production, the Lyric Opera Orchestra had but twenty members, doing a good job but not able to excel with a score that cries out for more string presence.
The conductor was Keith Chambers, an Assistant Conductor at New York City Opera who is in demand with the smaller opera companies; seeing him in action, it is easy to see why. He paid rapt attention to the principals, at times mouthed the words of the text as a prompter might, and showed particular sensitivity in accompanying both choral passages and arias. "Juliette’s Waltz" was exquisite, with the orchestra being delayed an infinitesimal amount so that the soprano’s attack stood out above the accompaniment. McEwen-Martin was having a very good night, and Chambers wanted to underscore her aria rather than competing with her.
The 450* or more in the audience also had a very good night.
*Note: Readers unfamiliar with the intimate hall should know that the capacity of the theatre is merely 500 - 350 in the orchestra and 150 in the balcony.