If you've been hesitant to give Lyric Opera Baltimore any attention (and from the empty seats Friday night, I'd say that means a whole lot of you), the company's season-ending presentation of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" ought to win you over. It's a very respectable venture, thanks to vivid music-making and a handsome staging.
A co-production with Opera Carolina and Virginia Opera, this is, above all, a musically satisfying treatment of a classic of French romanticism, an opera that stays quite faithful to the poetic heart of Shakespeare's' "Romeo and Juliet."
Filling the title roles are singers with the assurance and style to meet the opera's vocal demands. They also possess the acting finesse to create persuasive portrayals of the unfortunate lovers who dare to cross the long-monitored lines drawn in the sand by their respective feuding families.
On Friday, Jonathan Boyd used his sizable tenor elegantly, nowhere more so than in his balcony scene aria. Top notes were not always effortless, but there was an exciting metal in the tone when the music heated up, especially in Romeo's passionate outburst at the news of his banishment after the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio.
As Juliette, soprano Sarah Joy Miller could have been singing in any number of languages, but what she lacked in clarity of French enunciation, she more than made up for in the theater-filling brightness of her voice and her unfailingly beautiful phrasing. She's an unusual talent. It would be great to have her back in town soon.
The veteran bass Kevin Langan gave a sympathetic performance, vocally and theatrically, as Frere Laurent, whose efforts to help the lovesick couple get so tragically derailed. Among those also making vibrant contributions: mezzos Kimberly Sogioka (as Romeo's page Stephano) and Susan Nicely (as Juliet's maid), baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco (Mercutio) and tenor Daniel Curran (Tybalt).
The chorus produced a warm, mostly cohesive sound. In the pit, the Concert Artists of Baltimore hit a few bumps but played Gounod's finely crafted score with considerable fire and nuance (that score has been trimmed a bit for this production). Conductor Adam Turner provided sensitive guidance for singers and orchestra alike; he sculpted the post-wedding bedroom scene and finale with particular tenderness.
Visually, the finely costumed production hits the spot. The sets, designed by Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan, evoke old Verona nicely enough, with projections filling in details as needed. Baumgarten's lighting, more subtle than usual at the Lyric, is a major asset, right from the opening scene's lovely golden hue. Uzan generally maintains a firm pace and freshens up several scenes, but also falls back on some old-fashioned stand-and-deliver poses for the singers.
Whatever provincial elements pop up in this "Romeo et Juliette," the overall quality affirms what Lyric Opera Baltimore is capable of doing to keep the art form a part of this city's cultural fabric. That's what the old Baltimore Opera Company managed to do for decades; its successor deserves a chance to do the same.