The Santa Fe Opera presented its first ever performance of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette last night in a new production directed by Stephen Lawless. And it was a knockout, a home run, a hole in one. This opera depends almost entirely on its two title characters and they delivered. A sensitive conductor is also essential. I’ll get to the leads and the maestro shortly
Set designer Ashley Martin-Davis placed all the action in the 19th century in a mortuary vault which seems to be in Ruritania judging by the costumes. The vault provided an aura of gloom throughout the show. Its walls moved as the scenes changed, but we never did get out of the cemetery. I think this approach overdoes the dark side of the opera as a lot of it is happy and hopeful. The Capulet’s ball in the first act was dark and closeted. An interesting bit was the removing of the mourning clothes from the prologue to the ball gowns of the party in the first act. This was accomplished by having a series of coat racks wheeled onstage followed by the removal of the dark clothes revealing the white ones of the ball. A good effect. But all the stage business, including very impressive sword play by opera singers not usually swashbucklers, is secondary to the singing of the title characters. So no matter, glorious singing can make Ruritania seem like a tourist destination even if you have to stay in a mausoleum.
Tenor Stephen Costello, who made his Santa Fe debut last night, is at the pivotal moment in his career. He has the most beautiful tenor I’ve heard in decades and his lyric voice is large and easily carries throughout the auditorium. Everything is wonderful until he has to go above the A above middle C. Then uncertainty arises. He may hit the note without strain, but the sound falls in half. Other times he may strain, and still later all may go well. He clearly is uncertain about his top. If he can get these critical notes under control he can become one of the world’s truly great tenors – if. He can sing softly with expression and can soar above the orchestra. His problem was exemplified by the high note at the end of ‘Ah leve toi soleil’ and the high note that concludes the third act. The former was diminished, while the latter was lost in the melee.
Alyn Perez has the whole package. She is at the entryway of a great career. She can sing with power and restraint as the need presents. She has a rich lyric soprano that is completely under her control. Everything she did was touched with brilliance. No soprano I can think of could do better and I’m not sure that any other singer now active could equal her Juliette.
The supporting cast was at the highest professional level. Particularly noteworthy were Raymond Aceto , the previous evening’s Ashby in Fanciulla. He played Frère Laurent, another in opera’s endless succession of confused clerics. Soloman Howard was very impressive in the small, but important part of The Duke of Verona.
The chorus was honed to near perfection by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. This ensemble plays very important role in Gounod’s melodic version of Shakespeare’s beloved, but basically goofy story of teenage love. But it is one that has inspired a series of great composers, from Berlioz to Bernstein, to do some of their greatest work.
Harry Bicket, who is now the music director of the Santa Fe Opera, started out as a baroque specialist. But he has moved beyond the 18th century. His conducting was idiomatic, sensitive, and evocative. This opera is filled with moving aria, duets, and large ensembles all of which were directed with complete control by Maestro Bicket. There are 6 more performances of this opera coming up this month and next. If you are anywhere near Santa Fe this Summer, this is a don’t miss show.
Roméo – Stephen Costello
Juliette – Ailyn Pérez
Stéphano – Emily Fons
Mercutio – Elliot Madore
Frère Laurent – Raymond Aceto
Gertrude – Deborah Nansteel
Count Capulet – Timothy Mix
The Duke of Verona – Soloman Howard
Tybalt – Cooper Nolan
Benvolio – Peter Scott Drackley
Grégorio – Nicholas Davis
Count Paris – Thaddeus Ennen
Frère Jean – Adrian Smith
Conductor – Harry Bicket
Director – Stephen Lawless
Assistant Director – Shawna Lucey
Scenic Designer – Ashley Martin-Davis
Costume Designer – Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Choreographer – Nicola Bowie
Fight Director – Rick Sordelet
Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston