Great performance, disappointing turnout for 'Romeo and Juliet'

Annapolis Opera's fully staged production of Charles Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts last weekend proved a triumph to close the season. My only complaint when I attended Friday evening was the number of empty seats.

Though the lower-than-usual attendance was perhaps the result of the move from the opera's usual March dates to May, the show itself was as satisfying as any this year.

Based on Shakespeare's timeless tale of star-crossed lovers Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, Gounod's opera — sung in French to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre — debuted at Theatre Lyrique in Paris in 1867 to mixed reviews, some critics pronouncing it tuneless. Today, "Romeo and Juliet" has earned a secure place in the repertoire of major opera houses like New York's Metropolitan, where it is admired for its melodic, passionate arias and for its dramatically tight, elegant presentation.

This marks the first-ever "Romeo and Juliet" production for Annapolis Opera. In a brief post-performance chat, stage director Braxton Peters wondered why this gem is rarely done in our area. He called it "a real keeper" — a view nobody would counter.

As usual, Peters contributed mightily to the production's overall excellence by his swift pacing of the action and skilled choreography.

Now in his 29th year as artistic director and conductor of Annapolis Opera, Ronald J. Gretz got his first opportunity to work on an opera he has loved for over 40 years. Gretz drew beautiful playing from the 32 skilled musicians of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. For this long-held favorite, Gretz selected the finest cast in memory headed by a dream duo and supported by gifted singers in all roles.

Annapolis Opera costume designer/coordinator Lorraine vom Saal said the marvelous jewel-tone Renaissance costumes, some designed by the late John Lehmeyer, were chosen from Baltimore-based costume rental company A. T. Jones & Sons.

Atlanta-based set designer Richard Kagey created the scenery, rented from the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre. This elegantly simple scenery enhanced the overall production, contributing to speedy scene changes.

One absolute essential is the choice of singers to portray Romeo and Juliet, easily met by Megan Hart as Juliet and Michael Wade Lee as Romeo, each making an astonishing debut.

At the start, Hart was a bit tentative vocally until midway through "Juliet's Waltz," when she rose to the challenge of the most famous aria of this opera. Always perfect visually, Hart's Juliet had immediate chemistry with Lee's Romeo, both tender and passionate. Their duets blended perfectly.

As Romeo, Lee started strong, perfectly capturing the impulsive romantic rushing into his destiny. Young, athletic, and handsome, Lee ideally fit the Romeo role and captivated us completely with his balcony arias "Ah, leve-toi soleil" and "O nuit divine," filled with ardor that conveyed both tenderness and passion.

The highlight was the final duet, requiring both singers to deliver passion, pathos and drama in superb singing that demanded vocal stamina, complete with ringing high notes.

Singers in supporting roles delivered memorable performances. Most notably, baritone Jimi James sang with his usual brilliance and established a commanding presence as Lord Capulet. James even managed to deliver a most acceptable waltz.

Bass-baritone Liam Moran proved an impressive and authoritative Friar Laurence, communicating his character's compassion and reverence while delivering all vocal requirements of this important and vocally demanding role.

Lyric tenor Rolando Sanz delivered a strong vocal and dramatic performance as Tybalt, and he also displayed impressive fencing expertise.

Andrew Garland was equally adept at fencing and revealed a warm, rich baritone along with credible acting ability.

Eugenie Grunewald offered a memorable dramatic and vocal performance in the important role of Juliet's loving nurse, Gertrude.

Mezzo Karin Mushegain captivated as Romeo's young page Stephano, in a pivotal role created by Gounod that requires energetic fencing while singing an aria taunting the Capulets.

Delivering fine performances were tenor Eric Finbarr Carey as Benvolio, baritone Alfred Niedel as the Prince, and baritone Andrew Sauvageau as Juliet's suitor, Paris.

This production ranks near the top of all the fully staged productions I've enjoyed over the last 18 seasons.

This success augurs well for the coming 40th anniversary all-Verdi season honoring the composer's 200th birthday. The season will include in mid-October a semistaged concert version of "Aida" — a first for the company. This will be followed by two March events: the Children's Opera and the 25th Annual Vocal Competition. A fully-staged "Rigoletto" will be presented in May. And at a time to be announced will be a full dinner with guest singers. For information, call Annapolis Opera at 410-267-8135.

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