Roméo et Juliette, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds
Shakespeare in song has never been so powerful
Opera North should be making the likes of the Royal Opera House sweat. Gone are the days when you had to pay an arm and a leg to access quality opera. With this has gone the contract that, to pay a reasonable price, meant not being able to see one third of the stage and using binoculars for the two thirds you could see. Today, touring and regional companies like Opera North are offering audiences exquisite productions of the operatic canon for half the price and, often, in my opinion, double the quality. Opera North’s revival of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the third production of their Shakespeare-inspired season, is no exception, combining sophisticated theatrical vision and verisimilitude, and the highest calibre of singers – both in chorus and principal roles – with a top-notch orchestra.
With his densely orchestrated score, Gounod’s opera is passionate, dramatic and, at times, indulgently lush, all of which the orchestra, under the expert baton of Martin André, does magnificently. The young voices of Leonardo Capalbo and Bernarda Bobro in the title roles, which I had thought may struggle, cope impressively against such full orchestration, mixing piercing sweetness with sometimes desperate intensity. Henry Waddington gives a touching performance as the gentle and bumbling Friar Lawrence, although we crave a rounder voice at times when set alongside the lighter voices of the lovers. Also of particular note is Frances Bourne’s role as Stéphano. Dressed as a male punk and graffitiing the wall (to which the elderly lady next to me reacted with vocal disapproval) Bourne glides on wheeled boots and gyrates her hips as she impeccably delivers one of the most hauntingly beautiful arias of the opera.
In what is an unobtrusively wacky interpretation of the piece, the Montagues are rowdy punks, while the Capulets are swottish, well-turned-out toffs. A central suspended platform is raised and lowered from the flies, serving multiple purposes as Juliette’s balcony, Friar Lawarence’s garden – sprouting what looks to be radioactive grass – and, finally, the lovers’ tomb. Though I sometimes find Gounod’s alterations to Shakespeare’s text verging on the tasteless (he has Juliette go through a second wedding ceremony to Paris, and also has her awaken just after Romeo has taken the poison to sing a couple of arias before they both go on to die) Opera North have nevertheless managed to make this an emotionally taut production. The fierceness of the lovers’ passion and the principals’ commitment to their singing, consolidated by a robust chorus of drunk party guests, street gangs, and mourners, make this an exceptional production of a flawed but, at times, stunning piece. The warm audience reception only goes to prove that quality opera doesn’t have to come at a cost.