Star-Crossed Blunders

Despite an ominous, foreboding prologue, a powerful final scene and several impressive performances, Opera Colorado's production of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is plagued by the same sort of clumsy staging, static crowd scenes and uninspired acting that was so pervasive in the revamped organization's recent, ham-handed production of Verdi's Macbeth.

During Act One, director Patrice Saint-Pierre fails to properly orchestrate several moments that are crucial to our understanding of the rest of the three-hour drama, including the doomed couple's first meeting. Rather than create a riveting, unforgettable moment of mutual attraction between the pair of "star-crossed" lovers, Saint-Pierre directs Juliet (Faith Esham) to scamper up a flight of stairs on one side of the stage while Romeo (Adam Klein), his back to the majority of spectators, stares after her retreating form. That's preceded by a similarly lackluster introduction to Romeo's pals, who resemble a sedentary gaggle of weekend warriors instead of a vibrant band of rowdy party-crashers. Utterly lacking in enthusiasm and vitality, the men nonchalantly join in a group salute with the surprisingly colorless and jejune Mercutio (Steven Taylor), who halfheartedly raises his sword heavenward.

Then, following Romeo and Juliet's initial encounter, the director perplexingly isolates the lovers during their shared sonnet scene, a flirtatious episode that's more effective when counter-balanced by the presence of several party guests. While Saint-Pierre might be suggesting that the teenage lovebirds live in a world unto themselves, it's equally important to establish that they go gaga under the watchful eyes of Tybalt (Peter Furlong) and his vengeful coterie of courtiers. A few revelers--even with their backs turned--stationed at the remote corners of the vast Elizabethan set (credit Jean Robertson with the serviceable ochre, black and slate-gray environment) would lend a modicum of danger and daring to the scene. As it is, though, the ramifications of the families' longstanding bloody feud never come into play during Klein and Esham's tete-a-tete, as the pair touch their palms together and gracefully dance a minuet as if they'd been fast friends since childhood. Topping off the 35-minute Act One is a scene in which two groups of slow-moving party guests stalk toward each other as if they're intent on forming some sort of living sculpture that will depict the underlying animosity between Romeo's Montagues and Juliet's Capulets. The only problem is, there's not a shred of opposition, conflict or dimension in their postures or voices--just a straightahead, stand-and-sing neutrality that, unfortunately, also rears its ugly head later in the music drama when Mercutio and Tybalt lie dead on opposite sides of the stage. Without so much as one chorus member bowing on bended knee or joining hands with a comrade in an outward manifestation of communal grief, Verona's citizens stand stock still for several minutes as they intone, "Oh, day of woe! Oh, day of weeping!"

Still, when they're not struggling to stay in sync with conductor Michel Singher's resplendent Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the principal singers manage to whip up a few passionate undercurrents in the middle of Saint-Pierre's limpid pool of a drama. Although Klein strains to reach a few high notes and nearly runs out of vocal steam near the end of the opera, he invests his heroic portrait of Romeo with winning nobility. After he bids a midnight farewell to Juliet, the talented tenor tugs on our heartstrings as he sings, "May the breezes of night convey my kiss to you." A few scenes later, he's equally convincing as he movingly declares, "Now rage and revenge shall rule my heart forever."

As Juliet, soprano Esham is more an overpowering presence than a romantic one, substituting sheer volume for discreet modulation and sliding up toward high notes that should be delivered with crystal clarity. On the plus side, her four duets with Klein are pleasing, and she imbues their final two scenes together with an appropriate mixture of hushed desperation and resigned calm. Bass Gabor Andrasy is both an imposing and compassionate presence as Friar Laurence, while mezzo-soprano Simone Lyne Comtois injects the drama with some much-needed verve and spunk, delivering an impish rendition of Stephano's Act Three aria about a dove's adventures among a group of vultures. As the Nurse and Tybalt, respectively, Marcia Ragonetti and Furlong deliver sterling, well-sung portrayals that lend gravity, depth and exuberance to the otherwise somnolent proceedings. And despite being hampered by garish costume and unsympathetic makeup, Andras Palerdi is regal and commanding as the Duke of Verona.

Even so, a few textual problems and technical difficulties detract from the performers' efforts in Gounod's admittedly melodramatic version. For example, at the height of Tybalt's railing against Romeo, we learn that the hot-blooded swordsman is ready to kill his enemy because the youth spoke to Tybalt's kinswomen in "furtive tones." The operatic take on Shakespeare's play also loses something in the translation when Juliet murmurs to Romeo that it's "a joy surpassing all others to be dying here with you" as she takes her place next to him on the catafalque. And on the technical side, it's hard to take Juliet seriously during the balcony scene when she declares, "You know that night conceals my face in shadows" while intense, ice-blue light floods the expansive, shadowless, thirty-foot-square balcony she's standing on. In addition, a couple of lengthy scene changes--including those in which a temperamental trap-door elevator are used--impede the drama's scant momentum. Interestingly, all of this seems to indicate that Denver's premier opera company--which touted itself as the "new" Opera Colorado by, in part, modifying Boettcher's arena-style confines to a three-quarter-round space, thereby abandoning its long-standing practice of producing opera in the round--appears mired in the archaic staging conventions of the art form's baroque past.


Romeo and Juliet, presented by Opera Colorado through May 16 at Boettcher Concert Hall, in the Denver Performing Arts Complex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.

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Jim Lillie

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