Attractive Romeo et Juliette Can’t Find That Extra Spark

It hardly seems fair, on one level, to complain even a little about the Dallas Opera’s current production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which opened Friday at the Winspear Opera House. The singing was often spectacular—and, as has often been said, good singing is the sine qua non of good opera. Soprano Lyubov Petrova as Juliette had a voice that was beautiful, unique, and consistently expressive; best of all, she looked and played the part of a young woman who transforms from an awkward teenager into a great romantic heroine.

And much the same could be said for tenor Charles Castronovo as Romeo. He’s strikingly handsome, with a voice that filled the hall and was always accurate and attractive. He played his part convincingly, torn between youthful impetuosity and the sudden awakening of love. In the supporting roles, baritone Joshua Hopkins lit the stage as Romeo’s assertive and ill-fated companion Mercutio, with a magnetic presence and another hall-filling voice. Bass Robert Lloyd as Frere Laurent presented a likewise impressive voice and presence as the mentor who unwittingly sets the ultimate tragedy in motion. And, after a few rough moments near the beginning, conductor Marco Zambelli and the orchestra accompanied cleanly and expressively.

There is, however, an inherent aspect of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette that is both its greatest weakness and its greatest problem, and that is that it reshapes a masterpiece of literature from the high Renaissance with the sensibilities of nineteenth-century France. This in itself is not a bad thing: Gounod and his librettists give us an additional viewpoint, emphasizing the lyrical, poetic qualities of the work. We all know the fundamental story; ideally, as audience members, we can come away from a performance of Gounod’s version with a deeper understanding of the nineteenth century’s view of the work. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s original remains untarnished and, in some ways, even enhanced by Gounod’s commentary.

And, from a viewpoint of historical accuracy, this production, directed by Michael Kahn with sets and costumes designed by Claude Girard for Opera de Montreal, was largely true to the ideals of French romanticism: opulent, clear, and, within parameters, emotional. Colors subtly divided the warring Capulets and Montagues, in the best time-honored tradition of staging Romeo and Juliet or any of its balletic or operatic offspring. Dancing, fights, romance, and suicide proceeded clearly against a grand backdrop.

And therein may lie the problem that kept this often admirable production from really taking off. Faithful to the sensibilities of the nineteenth-century audience, it forgot the sixteenth- and twenty-first centuries. The tragic romance at the center of the drama, and the ironies that attend it, overwhelmed that other element that audiences at the Globe in the 1590s and in the twenty-first century all over the world, whether they realize consciously or not, expect in a work like this, and is present, though often hidden in Gounod’s gently expressive melodies and skillful orchestrations.

That missing element is the constant struggle of order and disorder. We got a tantalizing hint of it in the entrance of Romeo and his raucous gang in Act I, though it rapidly disappeared, and even for a moment when Juliette first came on stage—and again in the very human ensemble action at the marriage of Romeo and Juliette. The rest of the time, the action moved with an all-too-predictable orderliness, all too symmetrical, all too clean. The result was a pleasant evening at the opera: lots of impressive vocal moments, and very few thrills or tears.

All photos by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera