I think Charles Gounod’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, currently being produced by Minnesota Opera, gets a bad rap. That’s true of Gounod generally. Granted, neither of his masterpieces, not this one, based on Shakespeare, nor his Faust, derived from Goethe, are anywhere near as profound as their sources. But that doesn’t mean that Gounod “pillaged” those great works, as one critic accused!
I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for this sentimental work, but to appreciate Romeo and Juliet, it’s probably best to forget Shakespeare’s play altogether, though plot details will remind you time and again. The opera is, in reality, an extended five-act love duet, briefly interrupted by such bothersome necessities as arias, choruses and ensembles, and it is in the perfumed lyricism of its love music that it rises to the heights.
That said, even I have to admit Romeo and Juliet is not top-tier opera. Great singing on the part of its leads is necessary to make a strong case for it. And in Ellie Dehn and James Valenti, Minnesota Opera struck gold. I might have wished for a warmer, rounder sound from the two, but that's a minor quibble.
Dehn’s Juliet had the coloratura for a dazzling "Waltz Song" and a voice large enough to encompass the demands of the potion aria. Valenti’s Romeo had a clear, ringing top that was thrilling and the power to soar over the ensembles.
Call me a philistine, but it doesn’t hurt that the two looked their parts and acted with youthful exuberance. Director David Lefkowich gave both characters an active physicality that resonated passion and erotic energy and built to an ecstatic finale.
His production is an outstanding success, almost good enough to convince that the opera itself is first rate. He was creative without being intrusive, maintaining the integrity of the work. There was a heightened theatricality—for instance, using dancers to interpret and underline the action--and a refreshing commitment to having the characters behave like actual human beings.
The physical production (sets by Erhard Rom, costumes by Jennifer Caprio, lighting by Steve TenEyck) mirrored this down-to-earth realism with an engaging simplicity. Clever use of projections gave the whole an added emotional resonance. These artists provided an ideal setting for the jewel of Dehn’s and Valenti’s performances.
Occasionally, the use of the dancers (particularly during the orchestral interludes) became a bit intrusive, as if Lefkowich was worried that he had to keep things moving to keep the audience engaged. But that minor misstep was more than made up for by his thrilling fight choreography.
Note must also be made of the excellent work done by the chorus, especially in the Act III finale, where Mercutio and Tybalt are killed and Romeo is banished. Both vocally and dramatically, they carried the scene. Of the supporting singers, Adriana Zabala was the standout, singing the trouser role of Stephano with true Gallic grace. Some of the subsidiary characters left something to be desired, and if Kelly Markgraf’s Mercutio lacked the last degree of gossamer French elegance, he still sang his "Queen Mab" aria with great wit and style.
It was conductor Ari Pelto who occasionally let down the side. He fell too far under the spell of the romance, lingering excessively over some of the love music until the action began to drag and the sentimentality became cloying. But when it counted, particularly in the big finales, he rose well to the occasion.
Whether or not his work is your cup of tea, Gounod delivers the goods of an exciting and moving lyric opera. And overall, Minnesota Opera's production is about as convincing a representation of that opera as I can imagine.
Romeo and Juliet plays through February 3 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts.