Review: 'Roméo et Juliette' good and loud 

The San Francisco Lyric Opera’s new production of Gounod’s intimately lyrical 1867 "Roméo et Juliette" is mostly not. Lyrical, that is. Instead of hushed melodies on gossamer wings, what goes down in the Legion of Honor (through Saturday) is blood and guts, not a Berlioz wannabe, but something halfway between a Verdi revenge scene and Wagner’s Valkyries riding high.

Still, stylistically questionable as this production may be, hats off to a young, small, brave company: Lyric Opera serves as an entry point to opera, with low prices and high quality. Even with the too-loud Gounod, literally underneath, there was also restrained, consistent interpretation of the quietly beautiful. It came from where the pit would be if the Legion had one. If you focused on the orchestra, you could hear sensitive and effective performances from concertmaster Rita Lee, violist Zamil Sadiq, and cellist Ellen Sanders, and darn good performances from the rest of the small orchestra.

Up front: a super-talented young conductor (Barnaby Palmer), a fine young leather-lunged soprano as Juliette (Meagan Todd), and an impressive young bass as the Boris Godunov-sized Friar Lawrence (Kirk Eichelberger). See a pattern here? Yes, "youth" is what they have in common, as the singers try to blow the Legion’s fragile walls down, and the conductor lets them. The talent assembled here could have (should have) produced something more authentic and winning — and perhaps they will as the run continues.

It’s an impressive production, especially once you get used to the, ahem, volume. By the second half of the evening (which telescopes acts 3 and 4), it was possible to give oneself over to the music, especially with the wonderful — if regrettably short — appearance of Anja Strauss as Stephano. One moment in the spotlight, one aria, and Strauss gave the audience an "experience," even without — no, especially without — loud singing. Presence, authenticity, good taste and genuine communication: there are no small roles, indeed.

Part two may have been fine, but the opening two acts presented an hour of waiting for the right sound, which arrived at the very end of the balcony scene. Todd finally held back in voice and vibrant (or vibrating) movements, stilled her fluttering hands, and for the first time conveyed romance and tenderness.

She was well served by her Romeo, Jimmy Kansau, a true lyric tenor, who did well in spite of an announced indisposition, obviously a cold, which forced Kansau to sing some high notes — that normally should be natural for him — in falsetto. Among the casualties of the first half of the evening: Juliette’s vivacious waltz, "Je veux vivre dans ce rêve," belted out here in the manner of La Merman.

Eichelberger, in the relatively minor role of the Friar, made a huge impression, if not necessarily the right one. Tall, handsome, with a huge, beautifully modulated voice, the bass sang from another opera taking place in another house, a much, much bigger house at that. Here, in the tiny Florence Gould, the basso cantante role came across as basso profondo gigante.

Also in the good-but-too-loud department: Roberto Gomez as Mercutio and Richard Mix as the Duke. Reaching a better balance: A.J. Gluekert as Tybalt and Martin Bell as Capulet.

Too-muchedness also struck the usually reliable director, Heather Carolo, who must have either encouraged or at least failed to control Todd’s Lucia-mad-scene action throughout the evening. Set designer Jean-Francois Revon occupied a good half of the tiny stage with two incongruous large panels that served no discernible purpose.


IF YOU GO


Romeo et Juliette

Presented by: San Francisco Lyric Opera

Where: Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. March 2 and March 3

Tickets: $18 to $32

Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.sflyricopera.org  

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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