“Do we really need to see Romeo and Juliet again?” asked the Lyric Opera’s pre-opening speaker.
“Well, yeah,” he replied, especially during the city-wide “Shakespeare 400 Chicago” celebration, the Year of Living Iambically, although this version, sung in French with English surtitles, contains little of the original verse and text (“a curse on both your houses” does make the cut).
One of the two famous operas by Charles Gounod, Bizet’s mentor, this production, directed by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, implements 18th century costumes (by Catherine Zuber), including a fabulous array of ladies’ chapeaus and architectural red fezzes, with the Capulets dressed as dandies and clan Montague identified as leather duster-clad pirate types.
The set (by Michael Yeargan) is a large, Veronese public square, replete with back wall balconies ripe for young lovers to climb, with one large (rather phallic) Corinthian column stage right, and a raised center platform to highlight all the fussin’ and fightin’.
R&J is the tragedy of a whole community, the speaker continued, so the large chorus moves in and around the abbreviated version, although still in five acts, like a CliffsNotes of Shakespeare’s story (Friar Laurence, Christian Van Horn, remains, but the only parent is Lord Capulet, Philip Horst).
Juliet (Susanna Phillips) enters her family’s ball like a Quinceañera or Disney princess in a cotton candy-pink gown and falls for Romeo’s shtick about her holy hand, promising “if I cannot be his, then let my grave be my wedding bed.”
Her “young lover” is beautifully voiced by far too old and portly Joseph Calleja (sung by Eric Cutler for the March 11-19 performances) – Mercutio (Joshua Hopkins) and Tybalt (Jason Slayden) might not have had the vocal chops but definitely had the dashing Ren Faire youthful good looks and swagger.
French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa delivered an applause-worthy turn as Romeo’s man Stephano, a character manufactured for this opera, and the nurse here is Gertrude, well-sung by American mezzo Deborah Nansteel, both in their Lyric debuts.
The greatest crime in this 1867 interpretation is at the end. In Shakespeare’s original, the married youngsters miss each other in the crypt by moments, the monumental tragedy is that they don’t get to see each other to say goodbyes, the exquisite agony of Romeo’s lips still being warm.
Here, the pair has a luxurious re-acquaintance when Juliet wakes up. Romeo has drunk the poison, but remains alert and pain free enough to sing a poignant piece with his love. The music is romantic, but the narrative is hollow. They sing, “Viens fuyons au bout du monde” (Come, let us fly to the ends of the earth) because they certainly aren’t going to heaven after suicide.
Romeo and Juliet runs through March 19 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets and information available at 312-827-5600.