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San Diego Opera offers ravishing "Romeo and Juliet"

San Diego Opera’s splendid production of Charles Gounod’s ravishing “Romeo and Juliet” makes one wonder why this opera is not performed more often.

Based on Shakespeare’s play, and sometimes even quoting his text, it was Gounod’s major success after “Faust,” which had been so universally acclaimed that his next four operas languished in its shadow. Not so “Romeo and Juliet.” Aided by the coincidental but almost simultaneous opening of 1867’s L’Exposition Universelle, which drew 9.2 million visitors to Paris, the opera played for weeks to sold-out houses and became a staple of the French operatic repertoire.

After an ominous overture warns the audience that the story to come will be tragic, the curtain rises on a masked ball in Renaissance Verona, given by Count Capulet to honor his daughter Juliet’s birthday. The stage is bathed in golden light; the multi-leveled (and incredibly changeable) set, designed by Eric Fielding, and the rich golden palette of the chorus’ and dancers’ costumes, by Susan Memmott-Allred, make for a promising first glimpse of the production. Count Capulet presents his young daughter to his guests; shortly, Juliet, left alone with her old nurse Gertrude, breathlessly sings the famous “Je veux vivre,” in which she explains that, now at last old enough to go to balls, she wants to revel in youth and excitement, and, contrary to her father’s and Gertrude’s ideas, has no immediate wish to marry.

Juliet is sung by American soprano Ailyn Pérez, who, surprisingly for such a small woman, has a big, powerful, beautiful, lyrical and endlessly supple voice. She is lovely to look at, a fine actress, and looks to be the absolute star of the show until her real-life husband, American tenor Stephen Costello, steps onstage as Romeo. From that point on, when he is onstage, it is difficult to look at anyone else. Costello as Romeo is electrifying. He is tall, handsome, and young, believably portraying a teenager who could fall hopelessly in love after one brief meeting and willingly die for that love.

Costello’s voice is passionate and powerful, but with a quality of impetuosity and innocence that precisely suits the role. His second-act aria below Juliet’s window — “Ah! Lève-toi soleil” — showcases his gorgeous vocal quality — but then, so does every note he sings. In the course of the opera, Romeo and Juliet have four love duets, each more lovely than the last, and four are not too many. Pérez also sings, to great effect and with no apparent difficulty, Juliet’s “poison” aria, which is sometimes cut because it’s beyond the abilities of sopranos with less powerful voices.

The rest of the cast acquits itself well. American bass Kevin Langan, as Friar Laurence, has a voice as warm and kind as a trusted priest’s should be. American tenor Joel Sorensen is masterful as Tybalt, a relatively small but key role which Sorensen plays with suitable malevolence. American baritone David Adam Moore is a fine Mercutio, while New Zealand mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, in one of those woman-playing-a-boy roles in which opera delights, is a sprightly and relatively believable Stephano.

American Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman, a San Diego Opera stalwart, is effective as Gertrude, acting the part especially well. American bass-baritone Scott Sikon, also a regular here, capably portrays Count Capulet. San Diego Opera resident conductor Karen Keltner brings her mastery of French repertoire to the podium, and the chorus does chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons proud, particularly in the solemn chorus after Mercutio and Tybalt are killed.

Stage director Cynthia Stokes did a fine job with the staging, except for her inexplicable decision to have Juliet mime death, and lie down upon the stage, during Friar Laurence’s aria describing the potion he is giving her. My only other quibble is the curtain call after Act II. While I understand that Act III does not involve the chorus, and that they all want to go home, it breaks the dramatic flow to have those who have just piteously died jump up and take a bow only a moment later, and before the show is over — an amateurish note in an otherwise consummately professional performance.

In sum, “Romeo and Juliet” should not be missed. If you have friends who aren’t sure they like opera, you should try taking them to this one.

Candace Carroll is an SDNN contributor.

Event info

What: San Diego Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet”

When: 7 p.m. on March 13 and 16; 8 p.m. on March 19; 2 p.m. on March 21

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, downtown San Diego

How much: $35 to $190

Tickets/information: (619) 533-7000; www.sdopera.com

Broadcast: 7 p.m. on March 28 on XLNC1 (104.9FM)

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