Friday, November 23, 2007

French Technique

Although, as adults, many of us share a vague recollection that Romeo and Juliet concerns two young lovers trapped by the hatred of feuding families, the sad truth is that, after graduating from high school (and tossing their Cliff Notes into the garbage) most people lost touch with the jagged emotions and idealistic fantasies which lie at the core of Shakespeare's tragedy. What many audience members forget (or prefer not to acknowledge) is the fact that Romeo and Juliet were two very horny teenagers whose post-pubescent hormones were wreaking havoc on their emotional systems. Shakespeare's doomed lovers were two intensely passionate, idealistic and sexual creatures.

When, in Act III, Scene I of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, the curtain rises on the sight of the two young lovers in bed, modern audiences must face the fact that Romeo and Juliet did not sleep together because the young man had nowhere else to spend the night. Or because he missed the last bus home. Nor were Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers playing some late-night game of tiddlywinks.

They were fucking.

Why is teenage sex a much more impetuous affair than the adult version? Because, in addition to the benefits of prolonged physical stamina, the emotional ability to block out the real world, the intense thrills of discovery and the joys of exploration, a teenager's emotions vary so sharply that, with or without drugs, one's highs become higher and one's lows become much, much lower. The peculiar kind of puppy love experienced by many teenagers (a form of self-expression which, as adults, we tend to look back on with severe embarrassment) forces them to develop vastly idealized and highly romanticized visions of the people they think they love and the world in which they live. When a friend who teaches at Mission High School recently complained about his inability to get through to his tenth-grade English students, a neighbor just laughed at him and said "Why are you so surprised? Those kids couldn't care less about Shakespeare. Neither could you when you were that age. Don't you remember what it was like to walk around school thinking you were the only guy in the world who had a hard-on for 23 hours out of each and every day?"

Apparently, this teacher had forgotten.

Back in 1967, when I first saw Romeo et Juliette performed by the Metropolitan Opera (with Franco Corelli and Mirella Freni singing the lead roles) I was struck by the sheer elegance of its score. Although, like many Verdian potboilers, there were moments which sent the blood pulsing through my veins, there were also large sections of gossamer magic: exquisitely romantic music of a caliber that, when sung properly, can have a spellbinding effect upon its audience.

My love for Gounod's opera never wavered and, when compared to other musical treatments of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy (Prokofiev's score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Zandonai's verismo-style Giulietta et Romeo, Bellini's bel canto Masterpiece, I Capuletti ed I Montecchi, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture and Bernstein's West Side Story), the elegance and grace of Gounod's writing continues to stand out like a sore thumb. From the prelude's orchestral fugue to Mercutio's animated "Queen Mab" aria; from the innocence of Juliet's waltz song to the breathtaking purity of Romeo's "O nuit divine," this is music that begs to be sung. Even small details in the libretto, such as the use of the familiar rather than the formal declension of the verb "to rise" in Romeo's big aria, "Ah, leve-toi soleil," bespeak a rare intimacy and gentle ardor.

While the musical style of Gounod's opera may lack the more rhythmic appeal of Verdi's blood-and-thunder scores (scornful critics love to slash Romeo et Juliette to shreds as a sappy, treacle-coated, mishmash of a score), the delicacy of its orchestrations often makes it difficult for this opera to be staged with much success. Nevertheless, the Seattle Opera presented Gounod's opus in a production last fall which, for reasons of its own, proved to be downright shocking. What happened? Under Peter Mark Schifter's direction, the soloists actually moved like young people. They did somersaults, crawled under tables, jumped off wagons -- some of them even ran across the stage.

While this sounds painfully simple, it goes directly against the grain of most operatic productions, where soloists are frozen into the visual equivalent of sound bites in order to create pretty pictures that are, unfortunately, quite lifeless. Although I would be the last person in the world to cast aspersions on the artistry of a tenor like Alfredo Kraus, a performer in his early sixties who is attempting to portray a teenager strains a production's dramatic credibility beyond belief. Whenever possible, Gounod's opera can and should be cast with younger artists.

That's exactly what Speight Jenkins did with both his Gold and Silver casts last fall and the results speak handsomely for themselves. On opening night, tenor Vinson Cole (who often looks like a cherubic version of Bryant Gumbel in period drag) sang like an angel while soprano Kathryn Gamberoni finally found a role that perfectly suits her delicate femininity. Kurt Ollmann made for a lanky Mercutio while baby-faced Steven Tharp offered an appropriately obnoxious characterization of Tybalt. Jose Garcia continued to show promise as Friar Lawrence (this basso's dark voice has a particularly interesting sheen to it) and young Susan Graham scored a big hit as the rowdy Stephano. Veteran performers Arnold Voketaitis (Count Capulet), Archie Drake (the Duke of Verona) and Shirley Lee Harned (Juliet's sympathetic nurse, Gertrude) added dramatic strength to the proceedings while the obvious difference in their age helped to underline the clash of generations in Shakespeare's tragedy.

At the Sunday matinee, tenor Gregory Kunde and soprano Nicole Philibosian took over the two lead roles. I thought Kunde (who I first encountered when he was an apprentice at the Lyric Opera of Chicago) was particularly well-cast as Gounod's hero. This young man is an exceptionally appealing tenor who moves well onstage and has exquisite French. Philibosian's Juliet began rather shakily and suffered some pitch problems during Act I. However, once the soprano was able to get her huge voice back under control, its impressive colorings lent a very special flavor to her portrayal of Juliet.

Compared to the rigidity of Claude Girard's fairly unit set (which had been borrowed from L'Opera de Montreal) Schifter's stage direction was exceptionally fluid and busy. It brought a sorely-needed measure of youthful vitality to the performances and a sense of liveliness which is missing from so many other productions of Romeo et Juliette. George Manahan's conducting was solidly on the mark, making this one of the more pleasing efforts to grace the stage of the Seattle Opera House in recent seasons.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 2, 1989.

No comments: