Walking into the once church, now Julia Morgan Center for the Arts flooded my senses on this warm spring evening. I was filled with the strong scent of wood everywhere; high, beamed ceilings that peak in the center of this 320-seat house; shutters painted with doves both left and right, and a sense of something quaint, yet grand, in the midst of this flowery, tree-lined street.
Taking on Gounod’s French Roméo et Juliette is ambitious. A new English lyric adaptation, dangerous. It could have worked. This production brags elegant and colorful period costuming, with cuffed boots and gloves, tight tights, embroidered jackets, frighteningly intimidating codpieces for the men, no doubt, and beautiful velvet, jacquard, and silken courtly gowns with cinched waists, blouson sleeves, and necklines that permit a woman to look, well, womanly. I was a bit nervous about the set. The few arches within Verona look stable enough, but a wooden staircase leading up to Juliet’s boudoir, and the balcony, itself, seem to need some retrofitting. It would be a shame for the one steady star on this stage to fall.
Thankfully she didn’t. Elena Krell shines, balancing coloratura vocals with an ability to act, to project, and to endear. No wonder Romeo falls in love. Krell is playful, as a young girl of not yet fourteen ought to be. Stage director John McMullen does well by having his star-cross’d lovers act their adolescent, impetuous, impulsive selves. Krell trills a lovely adaptation of “Je veux vivre,” while dancing around her rickety room, getting her hair tangled in the trellised flowers, and looking to the east with wide and happy eyes. The libretto, “I want to fall. I’m not afraid to fly” left me on the edge of my seat for the sake of potential leaning misjudgments, as well as Krell’s ability to transpose her enthusiasm into her audience.
I’m not sure my ears drank a hundred words of Romeo’s utterings. Yet when Jimmy Kansau sings, he becomes the perfect match Krell. Kansau’s acting leaves much to be desired, however, with leaning toward grotesque facial movements with every thought, turn, and whim. Kansau’s strong Venezuelan accent devours the language, leaving me with a love/hate relationship with Romeo, depending on whether he was singing or speaking. You might wonder why this would really matter in an opera. Fact is, McMullen and Jonathan Khuner, who created this dramatic arrangement, made it matter. This production is half opera, half play. Some lines remain true to the text. Some skip around a bit, and some come from I know not where. Thankfully there are loosely used supertitles above to help translate Kansau’s English, and they come in handy when the jovial, yet out of breath Mercutio (Igor Vieira) speaks in yet another difficult to understand Brazilian accent, trying in vain to keep up with the libretto. Thankfully, this “catch me if you can” syndrome rectifies itself just in time for Vieira’s well-played and tragic death scene in Act 3. Between Kansau and Vieira, however, listening becomes work, punctuated by intermittent, enjoyable singing.
J. Scott Browning (Tybalt) has undeniable theatrical presence onstage, but he, too, gets lost in the music. Not because he can’t keep up, but because his tenor voice is a tad too soft to battle the behind the stage orchestra. Browning and others do engage in some exciting swordplay, but even a well-used sword can’t give Browning the sinister edge and sharp projection he needs to strike his audience where it counts.
A bit of bawd is inserted into the production, in tune with Shakespeare rather than Gounod’s interpretation. And why not with those codpieces leading every man’s way? Lowbrow Peter, well-played by Wayne Wong, takes the place of Gounod’s charming Stephano, while Vieira seizes every opportunity to acknowledge the sexual puns wonderfully inherent to Shakespeare.
Lord of Revels and master of the Capulet household, John Minagro, plays a festive father to the fair Juliet. Minagro unfortunately lacks the dramatic vigor that would set him apart from just being a part that is played.
I could go on and on about the ups and downs of this performance, such as the entertaining, well-played, her cups runneth over Nurse (Leslie Hassberg); the awkward Apothecary (Richard A. Goodman) who I assume walked in off the street to play the part; the dashing Paris (Anders Froehlich) who I almost wish would have won the heart of Juliet, and the abounding stature of Richard Mix, who reminded more of a magical Prospero than a Prince of Verona. And who could forget the Pyramus and Thisbe-like wall our Peter and Sampson (Wes Layton) awkwardly carry and plant halfway up Juliet’s stairs for the sake of a moving duet between our lovers, only to be awkwardly removed once the duo part in sweet sorrow? ‘Tis an unnecessary accoutrement that mirrors Midsummer’s Mechanicals more so than anything befitting of this opera.
As I walked out of the opera house and onto the street lined with sweet smelling flowers, my senses were once again overwhelmed. Of course I was touched by Gounod's tragical ending that allows our lovers to realize their dire mistake before taking their last breath together. Their beautiful voices carried me down the street in a dream. But from a dream, one must awaken and remember that wicked wall.