Grange Park Opera's Theatre in the Woods is a romantic setting for Gounod's tragic tale of doomed lovers Roméo et Juliette, especially with its prominent balcony from which the interval bell is rung. The opera was successfully premiered in 1867 at the Théatre-Lyrique in Paris and appealed to the Belle Époque audience's love of spectacle and memorable melodies. The librettists, Barbier and Carré, adhere to the sequence of Shakespeare's play and use some of the text. The score remains popular in the repertoire in this the composer's bicentenary year, almost matching Faust, owing to its series of increasingly erotically charged love duets, thematically linked. The last act in the tomb allows the lovers one rapturous farewell, unlike the original play where Romeo kills himself before the awakening of Juliet.

Olena Tokar (Juliette) and David Junghoon Kim (Roméo) © Robert Workman
Olena Tokar (Juliette) and David Junghoon Kim (Roméo)
© Robert Workman

First performed just two years after Tristan und Isolde, Gounod, part sensualist and part staunch Catholic, does not end the work a transfigured love-death but with the lover praying to God for forgiveness. The expanded role of Friar Laurence tempers the work with a seasoning of religious piety.

In a full version of the score with a playing time of nearly three hours, only the ballet is cut. We get both the show-stopping waltz song “Je veux vivre”, inserted for the original Juliette, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, as better suited to her skills than the more dramatically taxing Act 4 “Amour, ranime mon courage”, sometimes omitted. Olena Tokar's assured coloratura made an immediate success of the waltz with her convincingly adolescent appearance, rhythmic verve and stylish phrasing, with a hint of hard, cutting edge to the voice. Towards the end of a long evening her tone hardened, but she made a convincing transition from awakening love to full ecstastic abandon.

Olivia Ray (Gertrude) © Robert Workman
Olivia Ray (Gertrude)
© Robert Workman

As Roméo, David Junghoon Kim, a recent graduate from The Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artist programme, has already made an impact, notably as Macduff in the recent starry Macbeth revival. His well supported Italianate ringing top register made for a rousing “Ah, lève toi soleil” and he employed a sustained mezzavoce for the conclusion of the balcony scene. What he as yet lacks for the French repertoire is a sense of Gallic nuance and style. A stolid actor with arms held stiffly at his side, he would have been helped if the designer Francis O'Connor had not clad him in flannels and a Fair Isle top, which is not the best of looks for a romantic hero.

From the above design element, you can gauge that that we are in that now familiar production trope: 1930s Fascist Italy. The spare monochrome Bauhaus-style set allows for fluid scene changes with balconies and staircases sliding on and off, though the suspended piece of wrought iron iron fencing swaying to and fro during the balcony scene was irritating. Subtle lighting differentiated the different locations and the bedroom and taper lit tomb were effective.

In its Mussolini era setting, Patrick Mason's production highlighted the murderous machismo of the social conflict, though the black-shirted fascisti did not allow their jack-boots to overstep the central love story. Indeed, the narrative was clearly told and, apart from convincingly choreographed fight scenes, much of the group action left the chorus and soloists facing out towards the audience. There was too little real frisson between the lovers.

Olena Tokar (Juliette) and David Junghoon Kim (Roméo) © Robert Workman
Olena Tokar (Juliette) and David Junghoon Kim (Roméo)
© Robert Workman

Amongst the large cast, some drawn from the chorus, Anna Grevelius as a gamin Stéphano was memorable in her beguilingly phrased aria. Anthony Flaum was an aggresive, keenly sung Tybalt. Two heavy-weight Wagnerian basses, Clive Bayley and Mats Almgren, sang Capulet and Friar Laurence, the former stentorian and the other Hagen-like with occluded tone. Garry Griffiths' muscular baritone made for a forceful Mercutio, though lacking the silvery lightness for his Queen Mab aria.

Under Stephen Barlow the Orchestra of English National Opera sometimes sounded raw and over-loud, as though they would have been happier playing  Zandonai's verismo version of the same story. Gounod's orchestration can be heavy, but French subtlety and fragrance were lacking.

The versatile chorus, a combination of freelancers, music college graduates and a few from the English National Opera Chorus, were an impressive ensemble.

In an increasingly crowded country-house opera scene, at least in South-East England, the development of the theatre itelf, with its Sleeping Beauty mansion and gardens, is the most distinctive attraction for a visit rather than this safely conventional production.