Pene Pati as Roméo and Nadine Sierra as Juliette on Jean-Louis Grinda’s staging of the balcony scene (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second of its seven scheduled performances of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. As he had done with his successful predecessor Faust, Gounod composed this opera based on a major literary drama, this time the Romeo and Juliet play by William Shakespeare working with a French libretto written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Indeed, it was because of the great success of Faust at the Théâtre Lyrique that the theater’s director, Léon Carvalho, commissioned Gounod to write a new opera.
Roméo et Juliette was first performed on April 27, 1867, and it was far from the first time that Parisian audiences had encountered the work of William Shakespeare. Probably the best known predecessors came from Harriet Smithson’s productions in Paris, which date back to 1827; and her performance of Juliet most likely figured in Hector Berlioz’ conception of Shakespeare’s play as a “dramatic symphony.” In that context it is worth noting that Berlioz also composed a large-scale musical treatment of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, which he called a “dramatic legend” and entitled La damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust).
While Berlioz used Shakespeare and Goethe only as points of departure for his creations, Barbier and Carré’s libretto for Roméo et Juliette does much to honor both the letter and the spirit of Shakespeare’s text. (Personally, I would go so far as to say that their appreciation of Shakespeare surpassed their basic knowledge of Goethe by a significant distance.) Given how familiar Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to just about every generation of audience, one barely needs to consult the supertitles for Gounod’s opera to grasp what the story is and how the plot advances. Thus, while there is only one aria that tends to enjoy popular familiarity, there is much in the overall letter and spirit of Roméo et Juliette that makes for a more satisfying experience than one tends to encounter in Faust.
That aria is “Je veux vivre” (I wish to live), sung as a waltz by Juliette before romance gets the better of her. In the SFO performances that role is sung by soprano and Adler alumna Nadine Sierra, and her return to the War Memorial Opera House could not have been more welcome. The popularity of the aria derives from its rapid-fire embellishments and top-register climax, all of which flowed out of Sierra like an energetically bubbling spring, framed in staging by Jean-Louis Grinda (making his SFO debut) that discloses the many appropriate subtleties that trace the development of Juliet’s character.
Sierra’s Roméo was another Adler alumnus, tenor Pene Pati; and the two of them could not have been better matched. Like Sierra, Pati was sensitive to all of the subtle character traits endowed to him through Grinda’s staging of Roméo’s character. His command of Gounod’s score was consistently solid, and he always knew how to bring just the right expressive rhetoric to every phrase he had to sing.
If there is any criticism of this opera, is that Barbier and Carré never lavish much attention on the presence or development of the many other characters that figure in Shakespeare’s script. For example Pâris, sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams (another Adler alumnus), seems to be there only because his friend Tybalt (tenor Daniel Montenegro) wants to introduce him to his sister Juliet. Even the Duke of Verona (bass-baritone Philip Skinner) only puts in an appearance after the killings of Mercutio (baritone Lucas Meachem) and Tybalt, rather than serving as the stabilizing voice of reason that permeates the entire Shakespeare script. However, it is clear that the Parisian audience wanted primarily to indulge in the solo and duet work sung by Roméo and Juliet. Gounod delivered what they desired, and both Patti and Sierra served up thoroughly engaging accounts of the music that Gounod provided.
Of course credit must be shared with conductor Yves Abel and Ian Robertson, who prepared all of the richly splendid choral writing. It has been 32 years since Abel conducted an SFO performance, and it is more than a little unfortunate that we had to wait so long. His balance of the rich instrumental diversity coming from the orchestra pit could not have been better, and he knew exactly how to pace both the overall flow of the narrative and the extended vocal solo work during which the narrative, for the most part, is “put on hold.”
Readers may have observed above that my enthusiasm for Gounod’s Faust has been more than a little muted. I was downright disappointed by the last SFO production in the summer of 2010 directed by Jose Maria Condemi, preferring, instead the fall of 2013 production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele with staging by Robert Carsen. As a result, last night performance of Roméo et Juliette was a real eye-opener for me, leaving me not only with a highly-satisfying stage experience but also a better appreciation for Gounod’s talents as a composer.