RomÈo et Juliette, Philadelphia

Fifty years ago performances were heavily cut, as much of the music lacks
dramatic punch. The idiomatic Italo-French performance style in which it was
written has all but died out. Its libretto bowdlerizes Shakespeare.

Yet a number of memorable arias and duets—and the reflected glory of
the Bard—have kept RomÈo alive. It is, moreover, widely viewed
an appropriate vehicle for young and visually appropriate singers with
medium-weight voices—though perhaps wrongly, since the greatest RomÈos
have included Jean de Reszke, Georges Thill, Jussi Bjˆrling, and Franco
Corelli. The opera is thus intermittently revived when fresh new talent is at

Such was the case this month at the Philadelphia Opera, which cast Ailyn
PÈrez and Stephen Costello as the stat-crossed lovers. Pictures of the
good-looking couple, shot at an all-day session last summer, made for effective
publicity. PÈrez and Costello were on the airwaves and web, recounting their
story of having graduated from Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and
becoming real-life husband and wife in 2008. Both are rising quickly in the
opera world. Costello will join Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča for
his second opening night at the Met next fall. PÈrez has been singing in
Berlin, Vienna, London and La Scala.

This casting was evidently insufficient to assure a box-office hit, so the
company imported producer Manfred Schweigkofler from Italy. His big concept was
to reset the story as a modern-day haute couture battle between rival
Capulet and Montague fashion houses. The idea is not as radical as it might
sound. Modern Shakespeare adaptations are old hat after Baz Luhrmann’s
diverting (if not deep) film Romeo+Juliet and the Shakespeare Retold
version of Macbeth, with its warring chefs. Opera Company of
Philadelphia has had good luck in the past with modernized productions, most
notably its wonderfully whacky 1950s Cenerentola a few years back,
which opened with Angelina pushing around a vacuum cleaner.

Some local critics were hostile. True, this Juliet was more Versace than
virgin, the modern setting belied the Victorian-era text, and some subtleties
of Gounod’s score were obscured by overly energetic stage activity. Yet I
found the fashionista concept dramatically engaging. Why not portray
Juliette as a teenage House of Capulet model, play her Dad as the head
designer, center the Capulet party on a group of runway models parading new
outfits, deliver the poison in a martini glass, let paparazzi swarm around the
stage, stage fights with golf clubs not swords, and set paper boys loose
through the audience delivering tragic news? Schweigkofler has, moreover, a
keen sense of color and line; the set, designed by Nora Veneri, looked great,
even if the stage business taking place on it could be cloying. The unit set
was clearly built to be inexpensive. No doubt the production concept helped
sell out the house, create buzz, and stimulate community
involvement—since fashion students from three local universities designed
outfits for the party aka runway show.

Yet in the end, of course, RomÈo needs to sell itself on the
singing of its leads. Both seemed to take a while to warm up, or simply felt
more comfortable in later acts. Costello’s famous second-act aria,
“Ah, lËve-toi soleil!,” was short-breathed and dynamically
imprecise. Thereafter he seemed to settle down, displaying more subtle dynamics
and phrasing—though his timbre often retained a pressed, somewhat
monochromatically metallic “young tenor” sound, with the (often
conjoined) tendency to slide off pitch. There is little doubt, nonetheless,
that this is an exceptional voice of real promise, with true Italianate
virtues: squillo, ringing high notes, and some ability to mix head and
chest tones. His French was adequate.

PÈrez is the more energetic stage presence. As happens with many young
sopranos, her voice is now moving beyond the lyric coloratura roles in
which she has specialized to date. She was least comfortable in the famous Act
I showpiece, but, like Costello, she seemed warm into the role thereafter. Like
him, also, her voice can be cooler and more metallic than one might wish; I
found the bottom of the voice more attractive. Yet there is little doubt that
this is a gifted, smart and technically accomplished singer with a potentially
important career ahead of her. The duets, as one might perhaps expect from a
married couple, were well-rehearsed.

The other members of the ensemble were strong, particularly fellow AVA
graduate Daniel Mobbs as Capulet, but also Romanian baritone Marian Pop,
Italian mezzo Elena Belfiore, and three other young singers with Philadelphia
connections: Olivia Vote, Taylor Strayton, and Justin Hopkins. The chorus sang
lustily and the orchestra, a weak link in many Philadelphia performances,
surpassed its usual standard under the unaccustomed baton of the New Jersey
Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director, Jacques Lacombe.

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Charles Gounod: RomÈo et Juliette
product_by=Romeo: Stephen Costello; Juliet: Ailyn PÈrez; Mercutio: Marian Pop; StÈphano: Elena Belfiore; Capulet: Daniel Mobbs; Gertrude: Olivia Vote; Tybalt: Taylor Stayton; Duke of Verona: Frank Mitchell; Friar Laurent: Justin Hopkins; Gregario: Jeffrey Chapman; Paris: Siddartha Misra; Benvolio: Paul Vetrano. Opera Company of Philadelphia. Conductor: Jacques Lacombe. Director: Manfred Schweigkofler.
product_id=Above: Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]