Singers fail to reach the heights in Lyric Opera’s “Roméo et Juliette”

February 24, 2016
Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips star in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips star in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For its final opera production of the season, Lyric Opera of Chicago has turned to Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the composer’s second most popular work after Faust, and a work that virtually defines the French grand opera tradition.

It’s become fashionable in some quarters to goof on Gounod for his richly melodic style, five-act sprawls, and singular brand of sensual religiosity. Yet Roméo et Juliette remains a magnificent opera—more faithful to Shakespeare than most operas adapted from the Bard’s plays, and chock full of varied and beautiful music, including four duets for the doomed, star-crossed singers.

Lyric Opera’s production, which opened Monday night at the Civic Opera House, looked strong on paper, with a handsome production, a highly praised stage director making his company debt, and two popular stars in the title roles.

Yet despite some inspired moments–and several excellent singers in the large supporting cast–the opening performance refused to gel, with the singing remaining stubbornly earthbound when the music should soar.

Susanna Phillips brought an attractive stage presence to the teenage Juliette, the soprano radiant in her pink gown in Act 1. Yet while she handled the score’s demands capably, the former Ryan Opera Center member sounded cautious and insecure in the high tessitura where much of the role of the young girl lies. The essential vocal brilliance was decidedly muted, with top notes few and lunged at in a garrulous manner. Dramatically, Phillips was more serviceable than convincing, though she brought greater intensity to the role as the tragedy unfolded, with a well-characterized “Potion aria.”

As Romeo, Joseph Calleja delivered plenty of fire and ample passion in the role, singing with his big, vibrant voice (though his performance would have benefited from less unvaried fortissimos).

Yet like his costar, the Maltese tenor also sounded shaky on top with precarious high notes including one scary, strangulated moment in Act 2. Calleja seemed to settle down and sing with greater security in the latter half of the evening, and both artists were at their best in the final tomb scene both vocally and dramatically. But there was not the kind of consistent singing from either principal necessary to make Gounod’s opera take flight.

Following up from his impressive company debut last season as the doomed violinist Tadeusz in The Passenger, Joshua Hopkins was a terrific Mercutio. The Canadian baritone conveyed the character’s wacky bravado and delivered a nimble and elegant account of the Queen Mab aria.

Jayson Slayden made a notable Lyric debut as Tybalt, showing an ample, flexible tenor and likewise inhabiting the violent, hot-headed character. The ever-reliable Christian Van Horn brought expressive concentration and understated gravitas to Friar Laurence.

In the trousers role of Stephano, Marianne Crebassa threw off the page’s Act 3 aria with a technical gleam and joyous abandon that earned her the loudest ovation of the evening.

Philip Horst made a more youthful and vigorous Capulet than the usual doddering ancient. Deborah Nansteel was a worthy Gertrude though not helped by the director’s misconception of the character. Anthony Clark Evans as Gregorio, Mingjie Lei as Benvolio, and Takaoki Onishi as the foppish Paris. brought impressive voices to these comprimario roles. David Govertsen’s Duke of Verona lacked something in vocal weight and impact to sell the character’s sudden appearance to pronounce judgment on Romeo.

Nearly a decade old, this production comes to Chicago via La Scala and the Salzburg Festival. Michael Yeargan’s towering three-level unit set of a Verona courtyard is initially imposing but becomes visually monotonous over the three-hour evening; the half-hearted minimalist attempts to suggest other settings provided little help. Catherine Zuber’s costumes proved more effective with a striking mix of period outfits for the women–spiced by some antic Sweeney Todd wigs–and a contemporary-cool look for the men with their long, leather coats.

Director Bartlett Sher made a largely impressive Lyric debut. Not everything worked: at times there was so much running around by so many characters, the action became confusing. And making Juliette’s matronly maid Gertrude into a crotch-grabbing toughie was a dubious conceit.

Still, Sher’s lively staging provided uncommon energy and succeeded in avoiding static tableaux in a work that can fall prey to stand and deliver. Kudos to fight director B. H. Barry for getting the singers to gamely indulge in some fast and surprisingly convincing swordplay.

Emmanuel Villaume is almost without peer in this repertory, and the French conductor brought crackling vitality as well as Gallic elegance to the score, closely following the singers as well as the hectic stage action.

While already a fine ensemble, the Lyric Opera Chorus has been raised to a new level under chorus master Michael Black. The chorus provided many of the evening’s most successful moments, delivering rich, refined singing and powerful dramatic impact.

Roméo et Juliette runs through March 19. Eric Cutler takes over the role of Romeo beginning March 11.; 312-827-5600.

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