Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliet," published by EDGE Philadephia

The New Jersey Opera provides many reasons to see their current production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Besides the well-effected choral numbers throughout, and particularly all of Act III (with the strong minor performances in the roles of Gregorio and Stephano), Barry Steele’s lighting that added both dramatic clarity and psychological depth to Shakespeare’s tragedy, all combine with the mostly strong performances, the emotionally stirring music and condensed libretto to make this the highlight of the New Jersey Opera’s summer season.

The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre provides reason enough to see this opera even for most familiar with Shakespeare’s play. Their rendition both condenses and embellishes the familiar story; streamlining the plot by avoiding both the fleshed out background in the Capulet and Montague strife, and the close camaraderie of Roméo , Mercutio, and Benvolio. This focuses nearly all the attention on the title characters, even opening the play on the Capulet’s ball, where the young lovers first meet. Moreover, their embellishes deepen the tragedy’s effect-both on the Capulets and the audience-in the first by having Juliette’s mock death take place during her arranged wedding to Paris, in the second by allowing her to awaken in time to sing one last duet of contrition and love-only moments after Roméo drinks the poison that kills him.

Mark Verzatt’s direction adds a few flourishes of his own-from the ballet dancing to enhance the mood in Act I’s ball, the consistently superb choral singing, to the overall feeling of intimacy his production conveys-all help craft an emotionally stirring production in the small space of the McCarter’s Berlind Theater.

However, the main reason to see this production is for the rare and early opportunity to see Manon Strauss Evrard, the exceptional and highly promising young soprano playing the role of Juliette.

Though only 25, her amazingly mature and rich voice conveys the impression that she’s closer to 40 (though her appearance never suggests this). Her vocal instrument is all at once bold, deep, rich in texture and tone, expansive and controlled, especially in her broad and powerful lower range. From her initial Ecoutez to her impressive waltz in Act II, through her duets with Roméo , and the magnificent Act III quartet, her voice is a dream on air to experience, her performance one long intoxication of musical delight to hear.

The role, moreover, seems one this native Frenchwoman was born to sing, both in her elegant articulation and in her dramatic presentation of the role. Evrard recreates the fire of youth and youthful passions, while tempering them with a psychologically haunting portrayal-either when wrenching her arms in despair or fearing to take the narcotic that would fake her death. In this, her Juliette was no child falling in love or resisting an arranged marriage, but a heroine brought forth on stage with power and force-a rarity in this character as intriguing as it was delightful.

With few exceptions, the rest of the cast struggled to match her performance, and only Nina Yoshida Nelsen’s lone but lovely aria shows an equal vocal polish. Scott Ramsay’s Roméo nearly equals her at times, and while his voice is honey-toned and sweet in his upper range (once he gets there), he makes the jumps in his arias sound difficult to perform.

Only the basses fail to round out the cast, with Matthew Edwards vocally unsatisfying as Le Compte Capulet, and Matthew Curran, though strong in his dramatically and musically more impressive role in NJO’s current production of The Magic Flute, appearing here as Frere Laurent, only competently used and portrayed.

But some asymmetries, whether in nature, or on the stage, are nonetheless perfect in their own right, as the entire cast in this regard becomes a solid backdrop for Evrard’s magnificent performance.

Already having performed in Prague and soon headed to Hong Kong and the Netherlands, the NJO achieved a minor coup in grabbing this bright young voice for a few weeks in the summertime. I can only encourage everyone to buy what few tickets remain-years from now, when Evrard is gracing more prestigious venues, those fortunate enough to see her here will remember her "young flower in bloom" of Juliette, on the eve of the promise she is certain to become.

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