Two days shy of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeareʼs death, the National Theater in Prague dusted off one of his most durable plays, transposed it to the modern era, and breathed new life into an ages-old story. Give Charles Gounod a bit of the credit for writing a great opera, and a talented Slovak team – director Sláva Daubnerová and set designer Juraj Kuchárek – plaudits for bringing a smart, fresh approach to Roméo et Juliette.

Their production begins not onstage, but with a backstory. The well-heeled Capulets are the owners of the stylish Hotel Verona, whose art deco touches suggest a mid-20th-century setting. A deep, floor-to-ceiling stage set shows an expansive hotel lobby with doors to rooms lining both sides, and, in front of a hard scrim that rises and falls to suit the action, the front exterior of the hotel, which later doubles as the monastery and setting for the loversʼ final, fatal encounter. During the overture, the rowdy Montagues spray graffiti on the facade, assault the waiters and steal their uniforms, blending in with the staff for the subsequent celebration of Julietʼs betrothal to Paris.

Daubnerová, who showed imagination and flair in her staging of the Shostakovich double bill Orango and Antiformalist Rayok at the National Theater in 2014, brings the same combination of sound fundamentals and whimsical touches to classical fare. Her crowd scenes are superb, with the chorus neatly integrated into the action as couples or small groups seated at tables, checking in or strolling through the lobby, each apparently immersed in its own business. An occasional surrealist accent adds color and atmosphere – a ballet dancer perched in a storybook moon that descends during Mercutioʼs invocation of Queen Mab, interludes of female hotel staffers prancing across the stage en pointe.

Daubnerová is also an award-winning actress and performance artist, so itʼs not surprising that the strongest moments in her work involve physical choreography. The fight between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo is a model of economy and skill, with a tussle involving a jacket and some deft hand movements taking the place of the usual sword fights, without losing a bit of impact. Curiously, this skill does not transfer to the love scenes, which lack passion and grace, bordering on awkward at times. Romeo, entranced by Juliet, advances on her in an almost menacing manner at their first meeting as she backs away, surprised and afraid. The pair are soon in each otherʼs arms and at center stage for the rest of the night, but never in a commanding manner, relying on clichéd clinches and death throes.

But with opera veteran Marco Guidarini setting a brisk pace in the pit, there was no time to contemplate the subtleties of the performances. The story moved quickly and convincingly, pausing with just the right air of expectancy for the loversʼ arias and duets, which drew consistent applause. House singers Jana Šrejma Kačírková and Martin Šrejma were competent in the lead roles, noteworthy mostly for their sustained emotional intensity, particularly from Šrejma Kačírková as she resolved to drink the friarʼs poisonous potion, a tour de force moment. Staging the scene so that she watched in horror as her father, surrounding by grieving relatives, cradled a lifeless body double in his arms brought the fourth act to a stunning close. 

Moving the final scene to a surreal hospital room drained the romance and then literally the life out of it – and when was the last time the main characters died in front of the closing curtain? But the applause was enthusiastic and instantaneous, reflecting the emotional arc and momentum of an intelligent, carefully choreographed and neatly executed performance. 

The secondary cast offered strong support, with Štěpanká Pučálková in the trouser role of Stéphano stealing the show in the opening scene of the second half, tweaking the annoyed Capulets both verbally and physically. After a tentative start, the State Opera Chorus turned in another outstanding performance, adding an electric charge to the dramatic scenes. The State Opera Orchestra did not sound its best – the French repertoire has never been its forte – but the melodies were infectious and the solo work was crisp.

For just an instant when the performance started with a blood-red spray of graffiti and innocent civilians being attacked, there was a tingle of terrorism. The opera immediately turned in another, more conventional direction. But a contemporary note had been struck, and by eveningʼs end the work of a 16th-century playwright and 19th-century composer had been honored and given refreshing relevancy.