Published on April 10th, 2015 | by Katy Evans2
Lovely duets define Roméo et Juliette
Tacoma regularly attracts incredibly talented classical musicians and features them in strong live programming.
Maybe this is due to Seattle proximity; maybe to the strong music programs at University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University; maybe it’s because of the sheer number of decades-old organizations dedicated to sharing classical works at affordable prices with the good people of the South Puget Sound.
Whatever the confluence of reasons, Tacoma is a good place to be if you are seeking some high-quality, passionately delivered classical music. Oh, you don’t regularly seek such experiences out? Consider examining that failing and work to change.
Charming AND facile
Although an influential composer of mid-nineteenth century France, Charles Gounod is known more for his skill in choral song construction than masterful operatic development. As critic Frederick Goldbeck put it: “Gounod’s melodic vein is unmistakably original, though often oversentimental. He knew how to write for the voice and was also a skillful orchestrator; but in his operas his sense of musical characterization, though rarely devoid of charm, is often excessively facile…”
And Sutherland Edwards, a critic who reviewed Roméo et Juliette when it debuted in 1867, described, “Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, in which the composer is always pleasing, though seldom impressive, might be described as the powerful drama of Romeo and Juliet reduced to the proportions of an eclogue for Juliet and Romeo. One remembers the work as a series of very pretty duets…”
Both of these reviews are right – Gounod’s work is sentimental, pretty, and diminishes the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to a pastoral romp that inconveniently ends with a double suicide. You will smile blithely through nearly the entire production until it gets awkwardly calamitous. (If you really wanted to, you could skip out on the fifth act and just enjoy all the cheerful, cohesive parts.)
Assured singers with skills
But Gounod’s taste (and the taste of the decision makers at Tacoma Opera) aside, there is good reason to see Roméo et Juliette: the singers are great and Gounod’s composition is a worthy showcase for these talents.
I was impressed by the entire cast; standouts include baritones Benjamin Harris (Frere Laurent) and Ryan Bede (Mercutio), and the charismatic tenor Brandon Higa (Benvolio); but this is a show about Romeo and Juliet so if those two don’t steal the show, the show falls very very flat.
Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has the interesting distinction of including four lovely duets between the doomed lovers: many more tenor-soprano duets than are typically found in operas. These duets are true reason to see the show; soprano Ksenia Popova (Juliette) and tenor Christopher Bengochea (Romeo) shine together.
Duets that transcend
It is rare to attend an opera where the stars are sensitive to the harmonies necessary to deliver a successful duet. Often operatic duets turn into duels; not so with Roméo et Juliette. The two strong stars performed thoughtfully and responsively to the point where when they sang together, I regularly closed my eyes to hone in on the true mastery of their charming delivery. This is not to say the opera isn’t worth looking at: the sets and lighting are evocative and simple, the costumes tremendous in their detail and execution.
Go see Roméo et Juliette for the charmingly delivered music, for the confident performances, and for the beautiful voices – and it’s also worth going to level judgement at Gounod’s wacky taste level and general misunderstanding of tragedy and teenagers.
Tacoma Opera’s Romeo et Juliette
Friday April 10, 2015, 7:30 pm & Sunday April 12, 2015, 2 pm
Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway #700, Tacoma, WA 98402
All photographs by Peter Serko courtesy of Tacoma Opera and the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts