For the first time in its 84-year history, the Academy of Vocal Arts presented Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, closing a season that earlier included the esteemed school’s first-ever Rusalka. The first four performances were in AVA’s intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater, the final one (which I attended) in the physically and acoustically spacious Centennial Hall of the suburban Haverford School.

Meryl Dominguez (Juliette) and Matthew White (Roméo)
© Paul Sirochman

One of the advantages of every AVA opera with choral sections is that the chorus is all top singers (who have major roles in other works) so the sound is truly exceptional. Gounod begins Roméo et Juliette with an example of this as his intensely dramatic overture is followed swiftly by a choral prologue recounting the tragic story of the two lovers and their families, as in Shakespeare’s play. Later, when the Capulets mourned the death of Tybalt, the voices (and the composer’s harmonies) were worthy of a major sacred piece.

I had not seen this opera in several years, nor had I experienced it very often before that, and my recollection was of something less riveting than I would have liked, though full of lovely music including famous arias (but then I’ve always preferred Prokofiev’s ballet). So the power of the opening sequence almost startled me, setting the pace for what turned out to be a fully captivating evening, with music often much more than “merely” lovely.

Gounod’s librettists were Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, his collaborators for Faust in 1859, and they stuck closely to Shakespeare, sometimes word-for-word. For example, Roméo’s “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” is the “Arise, fair sun” after “It is the East and Juliet is the sun”. Tenor Matthew White’s combination of impassioned, full-throated singing (more Italianate than French) and softer, gentle sound was ideal for this and other similar scenes. When Juliette responds to her nurse Gertrude’s hinting that it’s high time she married, it is with the most popular operatic waltz until Musetta’s: “Je veux vivre” – to say she’d rather continue enjoying life, also from the original text. Here, soprano Meryl Dominguez displayed the sparkling side of her vocalism and personality; some shrillness in the upper-mid range disappeared not long after, and she gave her many serious scenes intensity and warm tone. Juliette’s tortured soliloquy before taking the potion, expressing her fears and doubts, then resolutely drinking it “à toi” – to Roméo – are Shakespeare and Gounod at their most profound; Dominguez was mesmerizing.

This opera also boasts one of opera’s finest love duets: after their wedding night, the two alternately claim that it is not daybreak, and the lark announcing dawn is really the nightingale praising love. White and Dominguez blended but also contrasted wonderfully – and how heartrending when “Non, ce n’est pas le jour” returns at the end of the opera as both are dying.

Two other memorable arias, “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” sung by Roméo’s page Stéphano to provoke the Capulets, and Mercutio’s “Mab, reine des mensonges” with its subtly racy text, had ideal interpreters in mezzo Gabriela Flores and Daniel Gallegos, respectively. Flores has a distinctive, warm voice with a bright side; the aria could have been written for her. Gallegos showed that his strong voice has the flexibility for the sly, quick phrases describing the fairy personage.

Bass Brent Michael Smith was a Frère Laurent of deep humanity, revealing emotions and reactions with both his interpretation and his rich voice, the wedding ceremony and his final conversation with Juliette terribly moving.

Given singers with good acting skills, but also thanks to the direction of Jeffrey Marc Buchman, crucial elements such as the above-mentioned ones and the first encounter of the star-cross'd lovers: he besotted, she smitten but already sure of what she wants. The crowd scenes and confrontations all moved logically. Buchman also made intelligent use of the sets by Peter Harrison: a basic central wall and steps, two metal scaffolds on either side, all serving multiple purposes while setting off the action and the vivid colors and textures of the sumptuous Renaissance costumes. Praise to fight director Charles Conwell for the remarkable swordplay, Rosa Mercedes for the graceful choreography and Val Starr for the costume design.

Conductor Steven Mosteller’s tempi were somewhat slow, but usually appropriately so; livelier sections needed more energy. The AVA Opera Orchestra played beautifully; flute, oboe and harp solos stood out (that simple yet exquisite ascending harp melody in the balcony-scene!) while the sonorous cello accompaniment to Roméo’s arrival at Juliette’s tomb created a true duet. I still prefer Prokofiev’s version, but have a new appreciation for Gounod’s!