Cher Public

Sher on this shining night

Bartlett Sher’s “new to Chicago” production of Romeo et Juliette came to the Lyric Opera at Monday’s opening after appearances at Salzburg and Milan. For most of the evening, the production worked quite well, moving the iconic star-crossed lovers to 18th century Venice. Musically, however, the evening was a decidedly mixed bag.  

Sher’s production kept the action fast-paced and filled the stage with Catherine Zuber’s stylish, colorful, and attractive costumes (the one exception being Juliette’s frothy ball gown, looking for all the world like Bjork’s famous “swan dress”, only in pink). Michael Yeargan’s grey structural set loomed over the action, creating a sense of claustrophobic danger that illuminated the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues under Jennifer Tipton’s moody lighting.

The most interesting prop was a huge, flowing piece of white cloth which transformed into the nuptial bed, Juliette’s bedroom, and then Juliette wrapped it around herself to create her wedding gown and, later, her burial cloth. This effect was haunting, and it allowed all the various scenes to happen on a center platform. Another gorgeous effect was Juliette’s entrance to the ball scene, when she started the festivities by cueing an explosion of gold confetti. Also, much praise must go to Fight Director B. H. Barry and choreographer Chase Brock for the best performed and executed stage combat scene that I have ever seen in an opera.

Both tenor Joseph Calleja and soprano Susanna Phillips played Romeo and Juliette with great youthful ardor, passionate in their love duets and very believable throughout as the lovers snowball into their inevitable end. Calleja lended his honeyed tenor and sang with surpassing beauty (though we could have used a bit less forte singing) and brought ravishing diminuendos to many important phrases. His balcony scene cavatina “Ah, leve-toi, soleil!” was thrillingly voiced and received the biggest ovation of the evening, though Calleja only touched his final high note then quickly moved on. He also sang a splendid death scene, realistic in its acting and vocally moving.

Romeo 1Ms. Phillips had a rough night in her upper register, though her luscious middle voice and coloratura skills were fine indeed. The final note of her first act arietta “Je veux vivre” fell flat, as did her barely voiced final note at the end of her potion aria. Other high notes were forced, almost trumpeted to unpleasant effect. Still, the rest of her voice was liquid gold, and her dramatic involvement was exemplary.

Again on Monday, the Lyric Opera Chorus was a lesson in precision and skill, making the choral opening to the opera a thing of beauty and clarity. The orchestra played very well for Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, who led with skill and detail, but for me there was a big tempo problem in Act Four. The gorgeous duet “Nuit d’hymenee”, in which the lovers sensually languish after their wedding night, was conducted as if Villaume had to catch an early train. The zooming tempo robbed the music of its intimacy, its luxuriant, sensual qualities, and made Romeo’s sad departure a major anticlimax. It’s a mystery to me why Villaume chose this peculiar approach to this scene, but, happily, his conducting for the other acts was a model of French style.

The supporting cast was also a mixed bag. On the positive side, the splendid bass-baritone Christian Van Horn brought a strong presence and sonorous, dark tone to Friar Laurence, illuminating even the excruciatingly dull music when he explains the potion’s effects to Juliette. Deborah Nansteel made a fine and amusing Lyric debut as Juliette’s nurse Gertrude.

Romeo 2Joshua Hopkins brought a muscular, clean baritone and excellent physical agility to Mercutio, including a fine Queen Mab ballad in the first act. Also effective and a remarkable sword fighter was Jason Slayden’s Tybalt. Another Lyric debutante, Marianne Crebassa as Stephano, was delightful and sang with abandon. Let’s hear more from her.

As usual with Lyric’s large-cast operas, the smaller roles were mostly undercast with youthful singers from the Ryan Opera Center. Phillip Horst was all bluster but no substance as Lord Capulet; David Govertson as the Duke, Takaoki Onishi as Paris, Anthony Clarke Evans as Gregorio, and Mingjie Lei as Benvolio simply looked uncomfortable on the stage and sang with no particular distinction.

Yet the evening on the whole was quite a pleasant one. Sher’s direction kept the story moving forward, and there were many pleasing details in the performances that kept Gounod’s sentimental score from becoming cloying.

Photos © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

  • Hippolyte

    I’ve heard Phillips is pregnant which might help to explain her recent not-so-stellar performances?

    • armerjacquino

      The first complaints about her singing date from the first FLEDERMAUS run, though, which was over a year ago…

      • The Poet Lenski

        Unless Ms. Phillips has been gestating for the past half-decade, I don’t think it’s related.

    • phoenix

  • YigeLi

    “Phillip Horst was all bluster but no substance as Lord Capulet; David Govertson as the Duke, Takaoki Onishi as Paris, Anthony Clarke Evans as Gregorio, and Mingjie Lei as Benvolio simply looked uncomfortable on the stage and sang with no particular distinction.”

    Sometimes I’m wondering whose fault this should be. Director? Conductor? Or someone else? From the description, it seems that they were just thrown onto stage and had to figure out how to fit in the whole plot by themselves.

    • armerjacquino

      “From the description, it seems that they were just thrown onto stage and had to figure out how to fit in the whole plot by themselves.”

      And yet, for some people here, that’s the ideal state, because nobody should ever have to rehearse for more than a week…

      • messa di voce

        Well, we all know a production is just sets and costumes . . .

        • armerjacquino


    • GRDowntown

      Vocally Horst along with Phillips were the real weak links that marred my enjoyment of the performance. Until this performance, I was not aware than so much damage could be done to an entire show just by the performance of one of the singers, who really doesn’t have principal part. In fairness, I am only judging by the audio from the WFMT radio broadcast, which was live and unedited.

  • PCally

    That is such an unflattering photo Calleja. He’s not the most attractive tenor to be sure but jeez.

    • WindyCityOperaman

      You’d think someone would have suggested he’d ditch the facial hair and gone for a lighter hairpiece; the costume is more appropriate for Tybalt.

    • tatiana

      You beat me to it, PCally. And I have seen lots of other examples of like photography--in Met promotional materials, Opera News, and other places (don’t mean to slam the Met only)--where I’ve wondered if the publication was actually TRYING to make singers look unattractive.

  • GRDowntown

    I listened to the opening night broadcast on WFMT. Calleja had some nice moments, but he needed to know his was singing in Romeo et Juliette and not “Loud & LOUDER.” So many times he used the soft singing to great effect--so you know he can do it.

    Here I have to apologize because I am about to make some negative comments and they are the first I have EVER made online about a performance--there are so many reasons a performance is bad and we never know why. Phillips has a pretty if rather generic lyric voice. I don’t find it memorable and her high profile career at the Met has been a mystery to me especially when there are many others who could sing her rep better. With Juliette, it wasn’t just that she was a mile flat at the end of the waltz. There were other missed or ducked notes or entire phrases, early entrances and other musical problems and errors. The potion aria was better than the waltz, but not significantly so. She had problems with it too especially the ending.

    But it is the top that seems to be the real problem. This was also evident in the recent Fledermaus at the Met. So I do hope that things would themselves out for her whatever the reasons.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    Mrs. DS and I have tickets for the March 16th performance, bracketed by two evenings at the Chicago Symphony. Phillips as Juliette and Eric Cutler as Romeo. (Please, hold your boos and hisses for Cutler. We’ve paid a lot for this trip, and I’m determined to like everyone and everything.)

    Tonight at Carnegie Hall I heard the Vienna Phil. with Gergiev again. To conclude sections from Gotterdammerung, Heidi Melton as Brunnhilde sang the final scene. Let’s just say that, in the titanic battle between orchestra and vocalist, the orchestra won tonight. Just one bridge too far, at least this evening, in my opinion. Melton is a work in progress. I think she shows great promise. I’ll tune in again in five years.

    • DeepSouthSenior

      Tonight Gergiev could have restrained the Vienna Phil. just a tad bit (Southern for a small amount) to sync with Heidi Melton’s available power, so she could sing one notch below a yell on those high C’s. The orchestra was uncharacteristically agressive and blaring, in marked contrast to the subtlety and precision of the previous night. Maybe the protestors outside yelling “Shame, shame, Gergiev, Putin’s whore” for the second night in a row are living rent-free in the Maestro’s head. And why was he conducting with a toothpick? (Thank you, Bushnell.)

      • I’ve seen him conduct with a ballpoint pen, too.

      • Krunoslav

        ” The orchestra was uncharacteristically agressive and blaring”

        Uncharacteristic for the Vienna maybe; but--er--*how* often have you seen Gergiev conduct live again?

      • Feldmarschallin

        No C’s in the third act for Brünnhilde only B and H.

        • DeepSouthSenior

          Thank you for the correction. One of the keys to a good education is to spend lots of time around those who know more than you do. Parterre is a delight; the slightest slip will not go unnoticed!

          • armerjacquino

            Loving the gritted teeth! :-)

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Interesting to hear that about Melton. Based on her Tannhauser Elisabeth a couple of years ago I do find her hard to imagine as Brunnhilde, but it’s clearly where she and her circle think she belongs. I’ll be hearing her as Isolde in a few months in London.

      • Melton’s Sieglinde last year displayed a fine jungendlich dramatischer voice with an iffy top. It’s not that she doesn’t have the notes but her technique isn’t finished — quite inconsistent up there. And Sieglinde doesn’t exactly tax the upper register.

      • DeepSouthSenior

        The more I think about it, Melton may have been fine last night with more understanding and support from Gergiev. She also could have come on stage right before the final scene, rather than having to sit there and endure Siegfried’s fun, frenzy, and funeral assaulting her eardrums for twenty-five minutes.

        • tellfan

          I think it was a disservice to Melton making her sit through the orchestral bits before the immolation. As long as there was a break for the musicians to work their spit valves, she could have come on stage thereafter all fresh and ready to go. Also, even Gergiev seemed to moderate the sound a couple of times by giving left hand “lower the volume” signals to the orchestra. (By the way, I was in back of you in the box last night DSS and enjoyed the intermission discussion.)

  • Camille

    “Nicht doch!”

    Having heard Ms. Melton for the first time in June 2009 at Maestro Runnicles’ farewell at the War Memorial in Concert featuring the Verdi Requiem, may I attest to the fact her high notes, including a C in alt at the end of the Requim were ALL there and in various dynamics as well. She sang the soprano part as substitute for Patricia Racette, with notice of only 36 hours. It was announced at that performance that she would be following along with Maestro Runnicles in his new post in Germany. It was an absolutely wonderful performance, for anyone, and dunbfounding for a neophyte as she was at that time.

    Since then, she has been developing her career in Europe. I have had occasion to hear her in her debut as a Maid In Elektra (which one? She was one of the sopranos scurrying around on stage, so that one went pretty much as cypher). Then, she sang a very accomplished Third Norn in a Götterdämmerung performance I saw with Dalaymann, et al. No problem with high notes, or anything else for that matter: voice on track and in place.

    Fast forward to last month at the unforgiving David Geffen -- the artist formerly known as Avery Fisher -- Hall. She sang a group of R Strauss songs, LURCHINg forward at the hgih notes—-WAS????? I blamed debut nerves, I blamed David Geffen Hall, I blamed it on that time of the month, I blamed New York City!!!! What was wrong with her? Then came the coupling of she and Mr Owens recital of Wotan, about which I shall remain tacet, and it became tutto bello chiaro to me that someone has decided somewhere she is going to guve us the next great Brünnehilde. How is that, with the rather soft-grained, rounded and definitely non-metallic klang and lack of cutting edge which this music requires befr perhaps anything else. And now, Isolde? Five and a half hears out of Merola/Adler Fellow, whatever it was??? She sounds plausible to my ears as a sympa Sieglinde and Elisabeth, to be sure, but that’s IT, for now. I caught myself daydreaming for some of Behrens inciveness with the text, or just anyone’s ability to convey the tragic nobility of Brünnehilde’s plight.

    In somma: in 2009, she sounded to me for all intents and purposes like a future extremely promising lirico-spinto Verdian soprano, with the requisite easy upper fifth of the voice perfectly managed and deployed. A little Wagner, sure, fine, but I don’t like what I am hearing nor what I witnessed in Carnegie Hall last night. A far cry from that splendid accounting she gave of the entire soprano role in the great, forbiding Messa da Requiem.

    As I was once accused in these pages of talking of Melton enthusiasically only because I was her “agent” (HA!), let me say this: if I were, this would not be the path I would have thought she’d be ready for, quite YET, and I am alarmed at the loss of her facility with her high notes.

    Anna approaches; I depart.
    Pax vobiscum

    • Camille

      Sorry for various typos hut I had to scramble to get back in time for Piotr. You get the drift.

      Can’t anyone else sing Isolde? Why couldn’t she wait just a bit? Or perhaps it goes better than Brünnehilde ma non ci penso affatto.

      • phoenix

        Where have you been? Excavating the California landslides? At any rate, I’ve missed you. Best wishes.

        • Camille

          Mucho spasibo.
          No, in a Swiss clinic and avoiding opera, in general, per quanto mi dà agità— that’s all.

          I have mostly said my piece here, in any case, and leave it all to the younger, the more energetic to say what they think. Miss Melton is someone I casually ‘discovered’ on my own and of whom I have held a high opinion for whom and am now experiencing more agità as to what is becoming of her voice, but, Il tempo passa…..

          !Salud, pesetas, y amor! Be well, amigo.