In a tightly-integrated production, New Jersey Opera Theater’s “Romeo et Juliette” gripped its audience in its debut performance on Friday, July 20, at McCarter’s Berlind Theater. Voices, movement, and acting fuse in a taut performance of the 1867 Gounod opera. Director Marc Verzatt treats the Shakespeare-based work as if he were managing a roller coaster driven by the energy of doomed romance. He translates the ups and downs of all-consuming love alternating with intense violence into high-profile drama. His use of movement emphasizes the passions of the story. The ample swordplay of fight director Jeff A. R. Jones and the soaring choreography of Mary Pat Robertson gave unity to the performance. Singers danced; dancers sang. Everybody was a skilled actor.
The intensity of NJOT’s performance makese one wonder why this opera is so little performed. Perhaps it demands precisely NJOT’s imaginative approach and its superior singers/actors/dancers.
The hatred of the Capulet and Montague families offers a lesson applicable today. The feuding families and the ill-fated romance of Romeo and Juliette bring home the evil embedded in cultivating enmity.
Manon Strauss Evrard, lithe slender, and supple, is a visually plausible Juliet, bearing out the comparison preceding her appearance as “a new flower that blooms in the morning.” At times, however, her voice is too shrill, rather than tender. Scott Ramsay is a Romeo with an imposing, emotion-laden voice, the embodiment of ardent feelings. James Barbato, as the hot-headed Tybalt, Juliette’s cousin, integrates graceful movement and authoritative singing. Barbato and Stephen Lavonier as Romeo’s companion, Mercutio, are a well-balanced pair, unfortunately dead by the end of Act II. The tall Matthew Edwards is a powerful figure, visually and vocally, as Juliette’s father. Sara Fanucchi, as Gertrude, Juliette’s nurse, plays her part with commanding modesty.
Composer Gounod followed Shakespeare’s plot quite closely, but devised departures that gave him compositional opportunities. His narrative opening of the opera, before the action unfolds as a flash-back, gave him the occasion to write a double chorus. By delaying the moment of Romeo’s death, he left space for a final poignant duet. By inventing the character of Romeo’s page, Stephano, he created a cameo trouser role sung effectively by Nina Yoshida Nelsen.
Conductor Steven Mosteller, with his clear stick technique, maintains the musical momentum throughout. His energetic upbeat initiates a brisk overture that hinted of passion and violence. Fugal orchestral portions of the score are lucid. High points instrumentally are the presence of a harp in the orchestra, and a yearning viola duet at the beginning of Act III.
When the curtain rises as the orchestra plays the overture, the stage set evokes 14th century Verona. The stylized setting demon_strates the versatility of set designer Mikiko Suzuki McAdams. Having provided minimalist scenery for Mozart’s “Zauberfloete,” the opening work of the summer season, McAdams uses green silhouettes of cypresses and classic arches for “Romeo et Juliette.” Lightning discharges into the landscape as the orchestra plays the overture in front of an initially empty stage. Lighting designer Barry Steele also furnishes a dramatic night sky sprinkled with stars in Act I. Costume designer Patricia A. Hibbert fashions a wide range of dress for the production, ranging from the simple nighties of Juliette to the elaborate dress of guests in the ball scene.
McCarter’s 600-seat Berlind Theater itself contributes to the production with its intimate setting, where there is no such thing as a bad seat.
In pre-curtain remarks artistic director Scott Altman informed the audience that the opening “Romeo et Juliette” was NJOT’s fourth sold out performance of the season. He also noted that the NJOT production was the first to be done by a professional opera company in New Jersey.
Romeo and Juliet, Saturday, July 28, 8 p.m. New Jersey Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787. $52 to $59.
Also, Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), Saturday, July 28, 1 p.m. $52 to $59. Pre-performance activities with performers presented for families at 11 a.m. $10; $5 children. Performance ticket not included.