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Santa Fe Opera’s Roméo et Juliette Hits Right Notes

on July 22, 2016 - 8:18am
Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Stephen Costello (Roméo) in ‘Roméo et Juliette’ (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Susan Vishmid (dancer), Tim Mix (Capulet), and Beth Miller (dancer) in ‘Roméo et Juliette) (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016

Los Alamos Daily Post

What is not to like about the Santa Fe Opera’s first production of French composer Charles Gounod’s 150-year-old opera, Roméo et Juliette?

Opening night on Saturday introduced a work of passionately clashing circles of romantic love and social hatred, ecstasy and oppression, sunrise and sunset, larks and nightingales, death in life and life in death.

There are beautiful sets, magnificent tableaux, four unforgettable duets and poetic language sung with feeling by a talented pair of young lovers. Stephen Lawless’s inspired direction and Chief Conductor Harry Bicket’s intrepid baton deserve a lot of credit.

Lucid, graceful tenor Stephen Costello and the magnetic, coloratura soprano Ailyn Pérez star in the title roles. They are the center of attention throughout, mostly together and seldom off the stage. Their innocence lures them toward an inevitable, fatal and transcendent conclusion.  

One of the first production decisions that had to be made was about the time period and location. From that flowed decisions about sets and costumes. According to Lawless, there was a preference for a time period close to 1867 when the opera premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique Imperial du Châtelet in Paris.

In the United States, the Civil War had just ended, which seemed to offer special decorative motifs along with military dress, weapons and accoutrements, as well ballroom gowns. The American Civil War certainly has more resonance in this country than the Franco-Prussian War, for example, but so little was made of the national setting, we wonder if it is of a certain time with allusions to post-Civil War, American style.

We know this star-crossed lovers’ story in English and should not be fooled by the French spellings and accents. We may already have a chromosome or two coded with the basic outline, which has been a part of Western civilization now for more than 600 years.

If you don’t have an app for calling that up, just about any taxi driver in the Northern Italian city of Verona can probably tell you the story and show you the castles of Montagues and Capulets, the rival families, respectively, of Romeo and Juliet, and Juliet’s supposed tomb.

As the legends have it, Romeo and Juliet met at a masquerade ball. They fell head over heels in love and decided to get married secretly because they know their two families would not approve. Then, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt killed Romeo’s pal Mercutio in a scuffle, so Romeo avenged his friend’s death by killing Tybalt in a duel and was then exiled from Verona by the Duke. Before he left, a friendly priest married the couple unbeknownst to the two families.

As for the Capulets, Juliet’s father had committed her to a marriage with Count Paris and the wedding was about to begin. So, with the help of the priest again, Juliette drank a special potion that made her seem dead, until Romeo returned, but the message about her scheme didn’t reach Romeo and when he came back, thinking she was actually dead, he took a draft of poison to join her. In the opera, when Juliette awakes and after their final glorious love duet, sees Romeo dead, she kills herself with Romeo’s dagger.

Gounod’s version in 1867 followed the Bard very closely and so did many other theatrical artists. Romeo and Juliet has inspired films, musical ballets and even ice shows. In 2010, the Royal Shakespeare Company collaborated on “Such Tweet Sorrow,” an experimental drama in 4,000 tweets, based on the immortal play.

WORD TO THE WISE:  It would not hurt the motivated opera-goer who might have some leisure to spare to take a look at the libretto from Roméo et Juliette or review Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The reason would be to free oneself from having to read the electronic libretto and thus missing subtle details on stage.

For example, when Juliette makes her first entrance, she stumbles at the top of the stairs, and her nurse Gertrude assists her down the stairs. Because Ailyn Perez is not nearly 14, Stephen Lawless has probably directed that to help the audience understand that Juliette is a teenager, not yet accustomed to adult behavior.

Violent fights are never easy on stage, according to Rick Sordelet, who directs fights along with his son Christian. And just to put that in the current context, Director Lawless said, “There is more swordplay in this opera than any other opera,”  

Christian Sordelet worked with the Wise Fool New Mexico performance group to make it appear life threatening, but safe and not boring at the same time. Shakespeare’s weapons were rapiers. A package of sabers did not arrive at the opera until Tuesday. They’re made of aluminum, so they don’t hold an edge, so they are safer than steel, but they don’t make the expected bright clinking sound.

The Bard of Avon’s 1597 tragedy features a gang of street-fighting teenagers disastrously caught up in the double trauma of real love and their parents’ murderous small-town bigotry. Among the many questions relevant to humanity in both Shakespeare and Gounod is about the individual’s right to choose a marriage partner without interference from family or social conventions.

This is neither new nor unfinished business. As Talia Shaffer, a professor of English at Queens College in New York has pointed out, the metaphysical poet John Donne eloped with Anne Moore in 1601, which created a scandal that ruined his life and inspired his shortest poem “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.” Current identity politics, are very much about controlling the contents of “what’s in a name,” a concept that comes out of these works.

PROP COUNT: About a thousand bones were created by the Santa Fe Opera prop makers for a scene in the mausoleum, when the doors of some of the burial vaults are open and contents visible. Total number of props for Roméo and Juliette add up to about 2,000.


Maury Katz (Tesuque) – “The best opera performance in this house in recent years”

Joe Illick and Gina Browning(Performance Santa Fe) – “Those  two voices – together – were so lovely. We just love it ."

Susan Vishmid (dancer), Emily Fons (Stéphano), and Beth Miller (dancer) in ‘Roméo et Juliette) (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016