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'Romeo et Juliette' superb world-class performance

By Christopher Hyde, Portland Press Herald July 26, 2008

Romeo et Juliette Gaston Rivero as Roméo and John McVeigh as Tybalt
Martha Mickles Photo

Dona Vaughn has done it again. PORTopera's production of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" at Merrill Auditorium on Thursday would have been worthy of any world capital. For it to have taken place in Portland is little short of phenomenal.

I confess I was a bit worried about the choice of "Romeo et Juliette," once wildly popular and now often placed in the second tier of Gounod's works.

It is full of beautiful and dramatically appropriate music from beginning to end and offers a new take on Shakespeare's classic, but has few blockbuster arias, while the balcony and death scenes of the original play have become all too familiar.

Vaughn's artistic direction, however, coupled with the superb conducting of Israel Gursky, reveals a thoroughly modern masterpiece, whose erotic charge leaves Wagner's "Liebestod" in the dust. She has assembled a world-class array of singers, who outdid themselves on Thursday, while Gursky's orchestra, composed mainly of Portland Symphony musicians, was indistinguishable from that of the Metropolitan Opera and often better, for example in the moving cello and violin duos.

The costumes and stage management were also outstanding. The masks at the Capulets' Ball alone were worthy of (Belgian artist) James Ensor, and the opening ballet, by members of the Portland Ballet Company, set the scene exactly.

Soprano Jennifer Black, as Juliette, stole the show from her beginning aria, which Gounod seems to have written to show off the remarkable talents of a particular diva. She has the rare combination of a gorgeous voice, physical beauty and acting ability to make the character thoroughly believable.

Tenor Gaston Rivero, as Romeo, was her perfect counterpart. At first the butt of his comrades' jokes, he is transformed by Juliette, as if by a religious vision. Speaking of religion, Gounod, the would-be monk, makes Friar Lawrence, well sung by bass Jordan Bisch, the force behind the play's action. The real hero of the story, however, is Eros, before whom everything else, including death, pales into insignificance. The scene at the tomb, in which the lovers mistakenly commit suicide, becomes not a tragedy but a consummation, an eternal kiss. No summing up, no reconciliation of Capulets and Montagues, which they had already rejected angrily at the end of Act III, just two lovers free of children and a mortgage, and a long, cheering, standing ovation for all.

Even the minor characters, such as Gertrude, the nurse, sung by mezzo soprano Sara Sturdivant, or the saucy page Stephano, mezzo soprano Lauren McNeese, were well thought out, sung and acted, each contributing a vital piece to the total, overwhelming effect.

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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