Review: Kentucky Opera's polished and romantic Romeo et Juliette

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Romeo and Tybalt fight
Kentucky Opera's 2013-2014 season will come to a close this weekend with Sunday's performance (February 16 tickets can be purchased here) of Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Last night's opening was well-attended, despite the latest blast of snow and cold from Old Man Winter. Inside the Brown Theatre, at least, we got to experience a little springtime on the streets of Verona and in the blossoms twining upwards to Juliette's balcony. The scenery and props were imported from the Kansas City Lyric opera, mimicking the graceful architecture of sixteenth century Italy and creating a beautiful setting for the sumptuous Renaissance costumes. Traditionalists rejoice -- the original time period of the story is lovingly re-created in the flowing gowns, doublets and tights that we tend to associate with Shakespeare.
 
The curtain opens on swordsmen engaging in a little foreshadowing play before the chorus comes on stage to introduce the warring history of the Capulets and Montagues on the eve of Juliette's ball. Romeo and his masked party-crashers arrive amongst the Capulets, setting in motion the first meeting of the young lovers. Ava Pine as Juliette is merry and girlish, all smiles and twirls, while everyone around her seems grown up and rather solemn. Even Romeo, still being teased for his romantic excesses with the unseen Rosaline, seems more stolid than boyish, especially outfitted entirely in black. For this reason, the love-at-first-sight chemistry didn't really work for me, although it improved markedly as the pair came together into the more mature stages of devoted love and ensuing tragedy.
 
Romeo et Juliette balcony sceneWhile there aren't any big, famous arias in Gounod's opera, the music is consistently romantic and atmospheric, showcased beautifully here by the Louisville Orchestra as conducted by Emmanuel Plasson. I particularly liked how the movements on stage were so well-choreographed to the rhythms of the music, the drop of a hand syncing perfectly with a violin's plucked string. It is just one example of the small details that make up Daniel Pelzig's well-directed production. Also, I don't often call out the Chorus for special praise, but each time they were on stage I enjoyed the strength and beauty of those voices in unison. Perhaps it is the very absence of any show-stopping arias that leaves room to appreciate some of the finer points of the overall performance.
 
Personally, I thought the first act was just a smidge flat for reasons mentioned above, but after the intermission, the energy on stage reaches more of a sizzle. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for sword fights. Vale Rideout as Romeo skillfully showed the inner conflict between loyalty to the Montagues and his dread of doing anything to harm his new bride. But when the bodies of Mercutio and Tybalt hit the stage and Romeo's banishment is pronounced, then you've got yourself an opera! I even enjoyed the later duets between Romeo and Juliette more than the ball and balcony scenes. The pair seemed better matched in every way, Pine's trilling soprano and Rideout's fine tenor blending perfectly.
 
Overall, this production was very polished, pleasing both to the eye and ear in all of its details. A Sunday matinee performance would be a fine treat for what will, perhaps, be the last gasp of winter before the thaw. 
 
[Photos by Patrick Pfister: Romeo (Vale Rideout) and Tybalt (Marco Cammarota) fight; Juliette (Ava Pine) reaches for Romeo's hand]
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