Singers fail to reach the heights in Lyric Opera’s “Roméo et Juliette”

Tue Feb 23, 2016 at 2:43 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips star in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips star in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

For its final opera production of the season, Lyric Opera has turned to Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the composer’s second most popular work after Faust, and a work that virtually defines the French grand opera tradition.

It’s become fashionable in some quarters to goof on Gounod for his richly melodic style, five-act sprawls, and singular brand of sensual religiosity. Yet Roméo et Juliette remains a magnificent opera—more faithful to Shakespeare than most operas adapted from the Bard’s plays, and chock full of varied and beautiful music, including four duets for the doomed, star-crossed singers.

Lyric Opera’s production, which opened Monday night at the Civic Opera House, looked strong on paper, with a handsome production, a highly praised stage director making his company debt, and two popular stars in the title roles.

Yet despite some inspired moments–and several excellent singers in the large supporting cast–the opening performance refused to gel, with the singing remaining stubbornly earthbound when the music should soar.

Susanna Phillips brought an attractive stage presence to the teenage Juliette, the soprano radiant in her pink gown in Act 1. Yet while she handled the score’s demands capably, the former Ryan Opera Center member sounded cautious and insecure in the high tessitura where much of the role of the young girl lies. The essential vocal brilliance was decidedly muted, with top notes few and lunged at in a garrulous manner. Dramatically, Phillips was more serviceable than convincing, though she brought greater intensity to the role as the tragedy unfolded, with a well-characterized “Potion aria.”

As Romeo, Joseph Calleja delivered plenty of fire and ample passion in the role, singing with his big, vibrant voice (though his performance would have benefited from less unvaried fortissimos).

Yet like his costar, the Maltese tenor also sounded shaky on top with precarious high notes including one scary, strangulated moment in Act 2. Calleja seemed to settle down and sing with greater security in the latter half of the evening, and both artists were at their best in the final tomb scene both vocally and dramatically. But there was not the kind of consistent singing from either principal necessary to make Gounod’s opera take flight.

Following up from his impressive company debut last season as the doomed violinist Tadeusz in The Passenger, Joshua Hopkins was a terrific Mercutio. The Canadian baritone conveyed the character’s wacky bravado and delivered a nimble and elegant account of the Queen Mab aria.

Jayson Slayden made a notable Lyric debut as Tybalt, showing an ample, flexible tenor and likewise inhabiting the violent, hot-headed character. The ever-reliable Christian Van Horn brought expressive concentration and understated gravitas to Friar Laurence.

In the trousers role of Stephano, Marianne Crebassa threw off the page’s Act 3 aria with a technical gleam and joyous abandon that earned her the loudest ovation of the evening.

Philip Horst made a more youthful and vigorous Capulet than the usual doddering ancient. Deborah Nansteel was a worthy Gertrude though not helped by the director’s misconception of the character. Anthony Clark Evans as Gregorio, Mingjie Lei as Benvolio, and Takaoki Onishi as the foppish Paris. brought impressive voices to these comprimario roles. David Govertsen’s Duke of Verona lacked something in vocal weight and impact to sell the character’s sudden appearance to pronounce judgment on Romeo.

Nearly a decade old, this production comes to Chicago via La Scala and the Salzburg Festival. Michael Yeargan’s towering three-level unit set of a Verona courtyard is initially imposing but becomes visually monotonous over the three-hour evening; the half-hearted minimalist attempts to suggest other settings provided little help. Catherine Zuber’s costumes proved more effective with a striking mix of period outfits for the women–spiced by some antic Sweeney Todd wigs–and a contemporary-cool look for the men with their long, leather coats.

Director Bartlett Sher made a largely impressive Lyric debut. Not everything worked: at times there was so much running around by so many characters, the action became confusing. And making Juliette’s matronly maid Gertrude into a crotch-grabbing toughie was a dubious conceit.

Still, Sher’s lively staging provided uncommon energy and succeeded in avoiding static tableaux in a work that can fall prey to stand and deliver. Kudos to fight director B. H. Barry for getting the singers to gamely indulge in some fast and surprisingly convincing swordplay.

Emmanuel Villaume is almost without peer in this repertory, and the French conductor brought crackling vitality as well as Gallic elegance to the score, closely following the singers as well as the hectic stage action.

While already a fine ensemble, the Lyric Opera Chorus has been raised to a new level under chorus master Michael Black. The chorus provided many of the evening’s most successful moments, delivering rich, refined singing and powerful dramatic impact.

Roméo et Juliette runs through March 19. Eric Cutler takes over the role of Romeo beginning March 11.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

6 Responses to “Singers fail to reach the heights in Lyric Opera’s “Roméo et Juliette””

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2016 at 6:36 pm by G.R. Downtown

    I did not attend the performance, but did listen to it on WFMT. I wish the singing had equalled the conducting, which was fantastic. Calleja had some nice moments–he showed that he CAN sing softly. I wish I heard more nuance and not just loud, loud, LOUD.

    But for me, the real problem was Susanna Phillips. Unfortunately, she currently does not have the top that this role requires. It wasn’t just that she missed the final note of the waltz by a country mile (and by the way she did), it was marred with other musical mistakes, ducked notes or phrases, late entrances and some of the basic French (“Je bois a toi” for example) that seems incorrect to me. She has a nice generic lyric voice, but it is not distinctive or special.

  2. Posted Feb 24, 2016 at 8:24 am by Jeff Wilson

    I actually think it was Calleja’s French diction that was the most disappointing element. Not sure what Von Rhein was talking about when he called said diction “excellent.” I’m fairly certain that open and closed “e” vowels are not supposed to be pronounced the same way, at least in the French speaking countries on this planet.

  3. Posted Feb 24, 2016 at 9:23 am by A balanced perspective

    I was present in the house, and feel that your criticisms of Calleja are completely unfounded. The voice was big and round and rich, but because it is a great full lyric voice. When you place a big voice on stage with many smaller voices, it is easy to assume that the big voice is singing “too fortissimo”. I heard no “strangulation” in the top; quite to the contrary. The often omitted B natural in the final act was fantastic, as were the diminuendos and soft singing that occurred throughout his performance.

  4. Posted Feb 28, 2016 at 7:16 am by Alan D. Strange

    I agree entirely with “A balanced perspective.” I, too, was in the house and the evening belonged to Calleja. He was not too ff; Miss Phillips was simply no fit match for him this night. His diminuendos were fantastic, proof of his control. I am perplexed both by this review and Von Rhein’s with respect to his performance vis-a-vis Miss Phillips.

  5. Posted Feb 29, 2016 at 12:30 pm by Jo Ann R.

    I was in the house 2/28. Calleja had fully recovered from opening night-what a difference. The high notes were excellent, no falsettos, and he was able to vary his volume. He is clearly a major artist-although he may have outgrown the role of Romeo and should be singing heavier roles. Phillips seems to have lost her upper register but had some really lovely moments. Too bad the critics don’t come back and revisit a production….

  6. Posted Mar 02, 2016 at 10:43 pm by Anne-Marie

    Having read both major reviews of opening night, I was ready for some disappointment at the March 2nd matinee. However, Joseph Calleja was in excellent form and his Romeo beautifully sung.

    On the other hand, Susanna Phillips, while a very pretty and visually convincing Juliette, seemed to lose vocal stamina towards the end. The romance between the two was palpable but there was definitely vocal disproportion between the two principals. Nonetheless, Gounod’s music is beautiful and the production quite Shakespearean and brimming with energy and dynamism.

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