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