For the 2016 Santa Fe Opera season, the company presented its first production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” in its history, in a new production by British director Stephen Lawless. The production set the action in the 1860s, in an homage to the decade in which Gounod’s two most famous operas – “Faust” and “Roméo” were created and in which the American Civil War took place.
If Lawless’ conceptualization avoided direct references to the Civil War itself, much of the production’s imagery suggested the emnity in which families on both sides of the conflict felt towards one another.
Joshua Guerrero’s Roméo
The role of Roméo for all seven scheduled performances had been assigned to Pennsylvania lyric tenor Stephen Costello in his Santa Fe Opera debut season. Illness required Costello to withdraw from the third performance, for which he was replaced by Nevada lyric tenor Joshua Guerrero, a prizewinner in Placido Domingo’s 2014 Operalia Contest and an alumnus of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists’ Program.
[Below: Roméo Montague (Joshua Guerrero) surreptiously enters the Garden of the Capulets, his families arch-enemies; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Guerrero made a strong impression, his tenor voice having a baritonal quality that lent grace to Roméo’s great aria Ah! léve-toi, soleil! (the aria that is sung from the Capulet’s garden under Juliette’s balcony), and gave heft to the series of love duets evoking adolescent passion.
An established rising star with the Los Angeles Opera, Guerrero’s biggest success there to date there had been the role of the Greenhorn/Ishmael [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015] (another role that both he and Stephen Costello include in their performance repertories.)
Ailyn Pérez’ Juliette
The great success, five years earlier, of Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez’ Santa Fe Opera debut as Marguerite in Stephen Lawless’ “Faust” – the company’s first performance of a Gounod Opera ever [see Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011] – led to her being teamed again with director Lawless.
This production emphasizes Juliette’s willful adolescent defiance of her father’s wishes. At the Capulet’s ball, in which champagne is served to the red-uniformed Capulet men and their hoop-skirted women, Juliette takes a champagne-filled glass, which her father (Oklahoma baritone Tim Mix as Count Capulet) instantly takes from her hand and returns it to the serving tray.
Moments later, the Count distracted elsewhere, Juliette gets hold of an entire bottle of champagne, which she opens and partially consumes.
[Below: Juliet Capulet (Ailyn Pérez) surrounded by Ashley Martin-Davis’ unit sets for “Roméo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Juliette is a role that displays Pérez’ shimmering coloratura in the cleverly staged Je veux vivre and the lyric legato of the love duets with Guerrero’s Roméo. This role is a particularly felicitous fit for Pérez’ voice and an obvious favorite of hers. [See also Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010.]
Raymond Aceto’s Frére Laurent
One of the leading present day basso cantantes internationally, Ohio bass Raymond Aceto was a sonorous Friar Laurence (Frére Laurent). With the production’s emphasis on the activities and affairs of mid-19th century military men, director Lawless has assigned Aceto’s Laurent the multiple responsibilities of battlefield surgeon, army chaplain and community priest.
Laurent marries Roméo and Juliette in his battlefield surgical suite. He later, in Juliette’s chambers, retrieves the sleeping potion that feigns death from his medicine bag. Still later, he is present in church for what he knows is a sham wedding ceremony between Count Paris and the already wed Juliette (a scene that is often cut in many performances, and is one of the several instances in this production where traditional cuts, including ballet music, have been reopened).
[Below: Frére Laurent (Raymond Aceto, left) provides Juliette (Ailyn Pérez, right) with a pharmaceutical that will result in her apparent death for the period of a day; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Elliot Madore’s Mercutio
Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, was Mercutio, Roméo’s best friend, whose death drives Roméo to kill Juliette’s cousin Tybalt, leading to Roméo’s banishment.
Madore skillfully delivered Mercutio’s rapid aria Mab, la reine des mensonges and displayed aggressive swordfighting prowess, his being the standout physical performance of the band of Montagues.
[Canadian baritone Elliot Madore was Mercutio; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, from elliotmadore.com.]
I had praised the lyric beauty of Madore’s Anthony Hope in San Francisco [see Review: A Second Look at “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera – September 20, 2015] who sings one of musical’s showstopping numbers. His Mercutio further demonstrates the versatility and deep talent of this rising opera star.
Emily Fons’ Stephano
Many of the drummer boys in the Civil War donned elaborate military-inspired uniforms, some skirted. Martin-Davis has designed over-the-top costumes for Stephano (a page in Gounod’s opera, but a boy with a paramilitary function in Lawless’ production) and his confréres. It is Stephano (sung by Wisconsin mezzo-soprano Emily Fons) and his two mates who are the source of boyish – and ultimately disastrous – provocation of the Capulet men.
[Below: the Montague boy Stephano (Emily Fons, front center) and his friends taunt the Capulet men; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Deborah Nansteel’s Gertrude, Soloman Howard’s Duke and Tim Mix’ Capulet
The role of Gertrude, Juliette’s nurse and enabler in her romantic adventures with and marriage to Roméo, was sung with sensitivity and grace by Okinawan mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel.
[Below: Deborah Nansteel as Gertrude; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Oklahoma baritone Tim Mix was effective in the role of Capulet, with a heel-clicking jump accompanying his party aria Allons! jeune gens! allons! belles dames!
Washington D. C. bass-baritone Soloman Howard, who had been the haunting voice of the underworld as the Commendatore in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” earlier in the Santa Fe season, was the decisive voice of earthly authority as the Duke who must govern a realm being torn apart by the battling Capulets and Montagues.
[Below: the Duke (Soloman Howard, center) expresses anger at the continued impact on the community he governs by the death and mayhem created by the feud between the Capulet men (left, in blue uniforms) and the Montague men (right, in red uniforms), specifically addressing Capulet (Tim Mix, center left, in grey long coat) and Roméo (here Stephen Costello, center right, standing in white shirt) as the bodies of Tybalt (Cooper Nolan, front left, in blue) and Mercutio (Eliot Madore, front right, in white) lie on the ground; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Other Cast Members
Apprentice artists filled out the cast list. Florida tenor Cooper Nolan sang the role of Tybalt, Iowa baritone Thaddeus Ennan the role of Count Paris. Tennessee baritone Nicholas Davis was Grégorio, Pennsylvania tenor Peter Scott Drackley was Benvolio. North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian Smith was Frére Jean.
[Below: Roméo (Joshua Guerrero, center, in red uniform) and the Montague men (left, disguised in Capulet blue cloaks) have crashed the party at which Roméo meets Juliette (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Parisian Opera in Santa Fe
The Santa Fe Opera, for over half a century, had demonstrated fresh ways of presenting the operas of the standard repertory as well as new and unfamiliar works. Yet, many of the most famous works of the French repertory had never been presented.
At the beginning of the present decade, the company’s General Director Charles MacKay began to address the company’s neglect of the French classics, introducing the first ever productions of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” [ Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010], Gounod’s “Faust” [see above], and Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers” [The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012]. This season he added Gounod’s second most famous opera, “Romeo et Juliette” to this list.
[Below: Frére Laurent (Raymond Aceto, left) sets up the ceremony for the marriage of Roméo (Joshua Guerrero, center in red uniform) and Juliette (Ailyn Pérez, right) as Juliette’s nurse Gertrude (Deborah Nansteel, behind them), who wears the wedding ring to be used in the ceremony, prepares to stand as witness; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The assignment for creating the new production of “Faust” had been Stephen Lawless’, and his success resulted in the invitation to create the “Roméo” production as well.
Lawless, utilizing Ashley Martin-Davis’ extraordinary unit set, devised smoothly-flowing action and ingenuous scene changes. A sombre ceremony memorializes the deceased lovers – whose caskets are brought in from either side by representatives of the (at least temporarily) reconciled Montague and Capulet clans to be laid upon a raised bier. The women are dressed in Civil War era hoop-skirted, black mourning dresses, the men in funeral attire. As the bright waltzes begin to play, the black dresses fly off revealing the party dresses of the Capulet’s ball.
As the Montague party-crashers find the need to escape, in crouching moves reminiscent of other Lawless productions, the Montagues dart from hoop-skirt to hoop-skirt, hiding behind each until they are close enough to the exit to make their getaway. Large bouquets of flowers, meant to celebrate Count Paris’ marriage to Juliette, are carried by the wedding guests to what becomes Juliette’s funeral bier.
Harry Bicket conducted the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, in a reading of the musical score that brought forth the sensitivity, passion and inherent drama of Gounod’s music.
I recommend the opera, cast and production enthusiastically, both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.