The Spoleto production of Charles Gounod’s opera promises to be colorful and inventive, a rich goblet of Bourdeaux. Brought to life by directors Jean-Phillipe Clarac, Olivier Deloueuil, and Hillary Spector, this Roméo et Juliette will have an international and contemporary flavor tweaked by contemporary New York theatricality. Conducted by Tommaso Placidi, it will undoubtedly be musically solid. Maestro Placidi, who has led major orchestras across Europe and makes his American debut with this piece, was also assistant conductor of the London Philharmonic and has worked with stellar personalities Colin Davis and Georg Solti, Mstislav Rostropovitch, André Previn, and others.
There are multiple musical effects in Gounod’s masterpiece, from waltzes to choruses to love duets, all of which will surely be informed by assistant director Hillary Spector’s connection with movement theatre, a concept that integrates human movement and acting, sometimes in odd ways that operate outside the bounds of traditional realism.
In fact, the staging of this show will provide a modern backdrop for the classic tale of doomed lovers. The set design, a funeral home, will reflect the 1960s and ’70s rather than medieval Italy. The dramatic tone, however, will remain grounded in tradition.
“We dream of being Romeo and Juliet,” one of the show designers states. “But how do we bring the myth to life?”
One of the most challenging aspects of this production will be avoiding the clichéd approach to the age-old story. But perhaps that won’t be the most difficult hurdle. The most central question is the aesthetic of Gounod’s music itself. Roméo et Juliette has been referred to as a neglected masterpiece. Has there been good reason for such neglect, or will Spoleto ’06 uncover a hidden treasure pleasing to the eye and the ear, a fine well-aged brew not yet sampled on this side of the Atlantic?
Clarac and Deloeuil work with D’LOFNY, Le Opera Francais de New York, a company that brings French opera to the Big Apple. The two men, who graduated from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and who are focused on the history and staging of rarely performed works, can probably be counted on to provide as clear and accurate a perspective on Roméo et Juliette as possible. The musical score, which harbors many notational mistakes (as many as 176), has been carefully edited and clarified as well. For the Spoleto production, the talented young conductor Tommaso Placidi will lead the Festival orchestra.
And yet one must keep in mind French composer Claude Debussy’s words about Gounod as the “eviscerator” of Goëthe in reference to Gounod’s other well-known masterpiece, Faust. The best Debussy could muster about his historical compatriot and predecessor was that Gounod’s fame was a product of pleasing his contemporaries, of creating a name for himself in his own time — Debussy’s polite way of calling Gounod a stuffy conservative.
Verdi, a contemporary, considered Gounod a great musician, steeped in the musical traditions of the past, who composed wonderful religious and instrumental music but who had no talent for true musical drama. It can be argued that Verdi, as an Italian, would have been somewhat aesthetically removed from Gounod’s French style, a case paralleled by the culinary distance of say, pasta from snails.
But for the lover of opera, this French take on the Shakespearean workhorse may be just what the doctor ordered. Frédéric Antoun and Nicole Cabell, Roméo and Juliette, respectively, have credentials and backgrounds that suggest they’re each quite capable of bringing the eternally tragic roles to sonorous musical life. For Cabell, this will be another debut in a season of debuts. Juliette is one of her first leading roles.
“There are two major challenges in this role,” she says. “One is finding the stamina to pull off the potion aria. The other is to move gracefully from the youthful and light voice of Juliette in the early part of the opera to the heavier and darker, more mature voice near the end.”
Rick Martin will provide lights and Carol Bailey, costumes. Both are steeped in opera and theatre.
The Bourdeaux will be of high quality, but who can attest for its vintage?
Debussy did have one positive thing to say about Gounod, and that was that the French composer avoided the heavy-handed influence of Richard Wagner, the German master who arrogantly dominated European music in the late 19th century. As an excellent Wagner evader himself, Debussy recognized the importance of this trait. French opera needed to have its own identity, free of the Teutonic onslaught to the East and the Mediterranean emotionality from the South. If the price to be paid was one of melodic sweetness bordering on mediocrity, saccharine simplicity, or just a veiled aspiration for Mozartean clarity, then that was fine. As long as it was French.
And that is the undeniable truth of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: It is either regrettably or agreeably, depending on your taste and preference, trademark romantic French opera.
There is a time and a place for a good glass of Bordeaux, and this year’s Spoleto Festival is providing that perfect opportunity. We will have to await a sampling to acknowledge the quality of the vintage.
ROMÉO ET JULIETTE • Spoleto Festival USA • $20-$125 • May 26 at 7 p.m.; May 29 at 2 p.m.; June 3,9 at 8 p.m.; • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100