Opera Queensland’s Romeo and Juliet is a sumptuous and romantic production, introducing Brisbane audiences to one of the more popular pieces in the French operatic repertoire. Gounod’s full-on mid-nineteenth century romantic music is combined with a scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s play by librettists Barbier and Carre. The opera is not well-known in Australia, but deserves more attention: it includes some beautiful arias and chorus work, the music full of parallels with musical traditions of the time, including resonances or anticipations of Bizet and Tchaikovsky.
This new production, first staged in Sydney by Opera Australia seven months ago, is conventional and mainstream, producing some magnificent effects in direction, design and lighting. Stuart Maunder’s imaginative direction plan is brought to the Queensland stage by Luise Napier. Gounod’s rich orchestration is realised by the Queensland Orchestra under conductor Peter Robinson, including much beautiful work in lower registers, woodwinds and percussion.
Soprano Sarah Crane is a splendid Juliet. Blonde and shapely, she has no trouble turning the head of any potential Romeo, and gives a strong and confident vocal performance. Her big Act 1 aria “Je veux vivre dans le reve” (originally made famous by Nellie Melba) is outstanding. Her characterisation is also effective. No adolescent naif, Crane’s Juliet is nevertheless dreamy and romantic, and she acts out her feelings well. For example, although later to prove quite forward in their relationship, her initial response to Romeo’s frank admiration is one of bashful surprise. As Romeo, Michael Martin sings with a pleasant voice with not quite enough consistent power, but acts well his love-at-first-sight and is good at displaying his turmoil of emotions when confronted by the Capulet gang after secretly marrying Juliet.
Costuming is a highlight of the production, with two sets of magnificent finery for the large chorus of Capulets and Montagues, as an Italian city-state aristocracy takes on a French persona. The challenge of a variety of scenes is met with commanding but versatile sets depicting exteriors and interiors equally well.
Juliet’s nurse is not the lumpy and ultimately perfidious figure (“Ancient damnation! o most wicked fiend!”) of many theatrical productions, but rather a fine woman of maturity and elegance straight out of the French Second Empire, sung with assurance by Jacqueline Dark, while Andrew Collis is a vocally commanding Friar Lawrence.
Tenor Bernard Hull and baritone Jason Barry-Smith are very effective as the hot-headed bovver boys Tybalt and Mercutio. Hull also gives the opera a fine start in his opening duet (with the firm and dignified Shaun Brown as Paris), while Barry-Smith does a great job with his Queen Mab aria. Dimity Shepherd is delightful as the cheeky page Stephano, singing with verve and convincingly earning a bloody nose in the fight scene (although Tybalt’s bloodstains appeared to anticipate his stabbing by Romeo). Henry Ruhl sings firmly as Juliet’s father. Supporting solo parts are well covered by Brett Carter, Virgilio Marino, David Hibbard and Matthew Broadbent, while the chorus members do their various dramatic bits as Capulets and Montagues with flamboyance and style while not straying from their vocal lines. French locution is convincing throughout.
Gounod’s librettists let themselves get carried away by giving Romeo and Juliet an extended duet in the final scene, but apart from this rewrite (probably following the 1748 “improvement” on the Bard by David Garrick), Shakespeare’s plot is followed, if not always his characterisation or depth. Literal translations from the French for the surtitles are rather bland I would have preferred use of some of the Bard’s own language wherever possible, even if somewhat at variance from the actual words being sung.