When it comes to tragedy, it's still hard to beat the one about "a pair of star-crossed lovers" named Romeo and Juliet, who defy their feuding families and are denied happiness by a dreadful series of circumstances. If there's anything that can intensify Shakespeare's compelling drama, it's music.
"Romeo et Juliette" by French composer Charles Gounod, first heard in Paris in 1867, was once nearly as popular as his most famous hit, "Faust," and still enjoys a firm place in the repertoire. It's the season-closer for Lyric Opera Baltimore this weekend, a nod to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. The performances will be led by rising conductor Adam Turner.
"It is so lush, romantic and beautiful," Turner says. "If someone has never experienced opera live, they'll walk away from this feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the vocal lines."
Those lines are not sung in Shakespeare's poetic English, but Gounod's native tongue.
"There's something about the French language attached to this story that makes it even more beautiful," Turner says. (There will be English surtitles for each performance.)
The story veers a bit from the original play. There's a new character, for example — Romeo's young page, Stephano, who triggers the fight that results in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. (Stephano is sung by a soprano in the time-honored operatic tradition known as a trouser role.)
Then there's the finale. Where Shakespeare revs up the pathos by having Juliet awaken from her faked death after an unsuspecting Romeo has killed himself, the opera lets both of them live long enough to sing one more duet — their fourth — before expiring. Given the melodic richness, even Shakespeare might have approved.
The Lyric's "Romeo et Juliette" is a co-production launched early in the year by Virginia Opera, where Turner is principal conductor and artistic adviser, and Opera Carolina in Charlotte. Companies in Ohio and Michigan subsequently presented this staging, directed by Bernard Uzan, who also had a hand in the scenic designing.
"All of the companies share in the costs of sets and costumes and get a lavish, almost [Franco] Zeffirelli-like production, which we usually couldn't afford," Turner says. "And one of the advantages for Baltimore is that it's a well-oiled machine by now."
Helping with that smoothness is that fact that several cast members have appeared in one or more of the previous presentations of this "Romeo."
In Baltimore, two young American singers with impressive resumes, tenor Jonathan Boyd and soprano Sara Joy Miller (she made waves portraying Anna Nicole Smith in Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera about the ill-fated model), will sing the title roles.
Turner makes his Lyric Opera Baltimore debut with "Romeo et Juliette," a work he first conducted a few years ago for a student production at Catholic University, where he earned his graduate degree.
The Louisville native started his college years at Morehead State University in Kentucky, concentrating on the piano with an eye on a career as an educator.
"When I was young, I wanted to be Elton John," Turner says. "My other idols were Billy Joel and Ben Folds. Then I found classical music on my own and was transported. As an undergraduate, I discovered opera. I love being a part of it all, working with directors and having a voice in the staging. And I love working with singers. I get them. I understand their drama, and I understand their need."
Now in his 30s, Turner is steadily expanding his repertoire at Virginia Opera. He added his first Wagner — a highly expressive account of "The Flying Dutchman" — last month. His recent work with the company has also included incisively conducted accounts of Puccini's "La Boheme" and Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."
In 2005, Turner visited Baltimore to attend a performance of Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" at the Lyric.