“Romeo and Juliet” has inspired more great music than any other play known to man, ranging from Tchaikovsky’s gobsmacked concert fantasy to Prokofiev’s doom-laden ballet (not to mention masterpieces by Bellini, Berlioz, and Bernstein). Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” (1867), presented in a new production by Opera Carolina, has both delicacy and strength of feeling, surprising flashes of Gallic wit, gossamer orchestration, and high hurdles for its principal parts. It has never entirely faded from the repertoire, but its revival is an event.
This is a somewhat traditional but exceptionally beautiful production, exquisitely set and poetically lit, like seeing a pre-Raphaelite painting or a tapestry by Burne-Jones come to life. The lighting transitions from crowd scenes to soliloquizing singer were seamless, executed with an art that concealed itself.
The Jan. 24 matinee performance, its first, gave the impression of a cast finding its sea legs, beginning rather creakily, but improving beyond recognition after intermission. By then, the orchestra had grown magical in its effects under the baton of James Meena, especially in Gounod’s tiny but pregnant interludes between the fourth and fifth acts. The same might be said for the chorus, and the principals, who consistently became more characterful.
Jonathan Boyd (Romeo) has a sweet tenor that does not thin out or grow metallic with the high notes. He was a youthful Romeo, just on the threshold of manhood, and none the less effective for that. As a voice and as a presence he proved to be a fine choice for Gounod’s music.
Marie-Eve Munger was as fine as Juliet, once she had found her footing in the second act, conveying her character’s innocence and freshness as well as her later heartbreak and despair. This is a role which requires a great deal of stamina, with Gounod’s most difficult coloratura writing coming towards the conclusion. By then, her performance had a quality of truth.
Brian Arreola’s Tybalt and Efrain Solis’ Mercutio also made strong contributions. One might, however, want more menace from Tybalt, and more fantasy from Mercutio, simply because it was there to be tapped in both artists.
Susan Nicely, who played Juliet’s nurse (named “Gertrude” by Gounod’s librettists) usually brings something memorable to a role, however small. Kevin Langan, who played “Frere Laurent,” did a good job but could not transcend the sanctimonious music Gounod wrote for his part.
One of Gounod’s deviations from Shakespeare is the addition of the trouser role of Stephano, Romeo’s page: Mezzo-soprano Kim Sogioka sang the impertinent and provocative “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” wittily. Ashraf Sewailam as Capulet commanded the stage during each of his brief appearances, and the Benvolio of Martin Bakari, the Gregorio of Andrew McLaughlin, and Keith Brown’s Duke of Verona added color and shade to the tapestry.
The main fault of this production is a certain want of imagination in Bernard Uzan’s direction, particularly in the choreography of the first two acts. All the characters settled into static tableaux, the Montagues assembled symmetrically on one side of the stage, the Capulets on the other. It stiffened this eventful opera. The dancing for the ball scene was neglible, and what ought to have been a first rapt recognition scene between Romeo and Juliet lacked the fire of the moment and the music. The fight choreography of Kara Wooten in Act Three went some way in remedying this.
The opera only became truly Shakespearean with the drawn blood of Mercutio and Tybalt. The acting then seemed to come alive. This is nevertheless a production worth attending, due to the fine music making and the surpassing beauty of the scenic and lighting design.
‘Romeo & Juliet’
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28; 8 p.m. Jan. 30.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000; operacarolina.org.