Shakespeare has provided rich pickings for all forms of art. He provides, and has provided, the source and inspiration for theatre, music and the visual and written arts so it is perhaps a little surprising that there are very few operas based on his work. In the mainstream there are really only Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and perhaps Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Odd, because Shakespeare includes all the ingredients for great opera, except the music.
Of course, there are lots of lesser known or less frequently performed operas based on Shakespeare and many of them deserve greater recognition and wider performance. One such is Gounod’s Roméo et Julliette which is currently being presented on tour by OperaZuid.
I am a bit of a fan of Gounod and love his Faust, but this is the first time I have seen, or heard in its entirety, his take on Shakespeare’s greatest love story. OperaZuid has decided to bring it right up to date with in an almost Grease type milieu, presented in a simple but versatile arch-based set by Anneliese Newdecker.
After a rather enigmatic start with a lone character (who turned out to be Stéphano, Romeo’s page) scrutinizing the audience from a camping chair while swigging a fizzy drink, the proceedings proper started with the ball with everyone wearing masks (we knew the feeling). The chorus is an important part of this opera and are never far from the action.
We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet so there is no need to elucidate it in full again here. Our mop-topped Romeo, played by Peter Gijsbertsen without a mask, first spots his soon-to-be love of his life across a crowded room, even though she is forbidden fruit. He is goaded on by Mercutio, played by the excellent Edwin Fardini, whose shared scene with Romeo was one of the high spots of the first half. The balcony scene also worked well, using a collection of step ladders up one of which Juliet, coquettishly sung by Anna Emilianova, spent what must have been a very uncomfortable few minutes.
After a series of rather incongruous appearances throughout the first half, Maria Warenberg’s Stéphano finally got her big moment at the beginning of the second half and re-ignited the show with an animated and very enjoyable front cloth solo performance. The duel scene was a bit tame but the show ignited after the death of Tybalt when director Julien Chavez finally got into his stride. Also at this point Jori Klomp’s chorus showed its mettle in a moment that was almost Wagnerian.
The show really moved up a gear at this point and the appearance of the little-girl Le Duc was another high spot. The final scene was visually stunning and dramatically intense with a brilliant neon representation of Juliet’s tomb. Paul van Laak’s lighting was good throughout but also seemed to be in a different league in the second half.
If, like me, you were unfamiliar with Gounod’s Roméo et Julliette then this production by OperaZuid will provide and excellent introduction. See it if you can. Michael Hasted in Rotterdam, 17th November 2021
Production photographs by Joost Milde