Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) reached into the Philadelphia community with its remake of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, the second of five shows in the 2010-11 season. In his OCP debut, Italian director Manfred Schweigkofler gave the company a chance to recast a Renaissance-era tale of two Italian families bearing ancient and deadly grudges as warring fashion houses in 21st century Verona.

Daniel Mobbs as Capulet, surrounded by local fashion students, © Kelly and Massa Photography
Daniel Mobbs as Capulet, surrounded by local fashion students,
© Kelly and Massa Photography

OCP worked the fashion motif like top models taking to the catwalk.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been famously modernized, most notably as West Side Story, more recently in a 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrmann, reenvisioning the Montagues and Capulets as warring business empires. Though OCP’s modernization of the houses Montague and Capulet as competing fashion factions wasn’t wholly tenable, it did allow for some surprising outcomes: the senseless deaths of the two young lovers seemed more wasteful and futile, if possible; and while expressing the fashion-house theme, some clever bits emerged, reaffirming the ironic, timing-is-everything nature of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedy that makes it so chilling.

But perhaps the most striking result of their brave new theme was the regional outreach it afforded, inviting local fashion students to create haute couture designs for the glittering runway show in Act I (traditionalists, think “masked ball”). In fact, the runway design angle received generous advance press coverage from Philadelphia press, so anyone coming to the show expecting to see wealthy Veronese clad in Renaissance gowns and doublets must have been wearing blinders in the last month. The sixteen runaway creations provided ample eye candy, from a hot pink floor length cape and a fire-engine red train to a scalloped sci-fi collar topping a neon-green sheath, all worn by leggy professional models.

To a disconcerting degree, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in 1867, is constantly measured against Faust, his masterwork. We all get that this show “is no Faust.” There’s no need for OCP or any other company to make apologies for doing it in their production notes. Particularly since in OCP’s production, Gounod’s music soared. Like Verdi’s Il Trovatore, this R&J is a showcase for operatic voices—two most notably, in the roles of Romeo and Juliet.

Tucker Award-winning tenor Stephen Costello and lyric coloratura Ailyn Pérez, both alumni of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, sang the title roles. They also happened to be married in real life, which might be the prime reason why their love scenes together, chock full of kissing and touching, seemed natural and comfortable. Top performance honors would have to go to Pérez , the youthful embodiment of Juliet. Pérez’s personality and voice seemed a better fit with the role of Juliet and better suited to French opera than Costello’s Romeo. I didn’t quite buy into the director’s rationale for Juliet singing her signature waltz, “Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve,” that the aria constitutes her avowal to break free from the world of high-fashion. Nevertheless, it was infectiously airy and deftly sung. Pérez and Costello also compliment one another vocally. That afternoon Costello warmed into his role vocally as opposed to Pérez nailing her presentation from her first appearance. By the second of their four soprano-tenor duets, an unprecedented number in one opera, they had both hit their stride.

Other highlights included Mercutio’s Queen Mab ballade sung by Marian Pop and the surprise delight of the afternoon, “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?” sung by Elena Belfiore in her OCP debut as Stephano. It was precisely because of the modernization of the opera and its fashion-house theme, that the sardonic nature of this piece played so well. While singing about Juliet as an unsoiled dove, Stephano was defacing an oversized poster of her with spray paint. Also worth singling out were the powerful chorus scenes, particularly the Act III confrontation between the Montagues and the Capulets, and the restraint of the sparkling orchestra conducted by Jacques Lacomb that conveyed Gounod’s evocative music without overpowering the soloists.

Another turn of events served well by the satirical theme used fashion photographers as some of the extras posted at the Juliet/Count Paris wedding. Once Juliet collapses from ingesting the poison and is feared dead, those hired to shoot the wedding become paparazzi, eagerly preying on the advantage the scene affords to obtain scandalous photos to sell to The Verone Inquirer, which was then hawked up and down the aisles of the Academy of Music by supernumeraries during the scene change—a clever if over-the-top touch. The fashion-house theme was evidenced throughout but rather than layered on via cosmetic elements such as busts of mannequins and oversized fashion posters floating onto the set, it should have been integrated into the title characters’ personas more fully and consistently. Juliet was more Heidi-of-the-Alps than Beyoncé, an interpretation which fit the original piece but not the fashionista-fueled version OCP had committed themselves to.

Opera companies throughout the United States are trying to build new audiences by necessity. OCP’s modern interpretation of Gounod’s R&J made the production more accessible to newcomers, ratcheting up general interest levels by tapping into America’s pre-occupation with the fashion industry. By featuring the costume designs of local students as well as the talents of many performers either studying in the region or locally based, OCP is offering a new model of sustainability in regional opera that's resulting in packed houses, lots of hometown pride, and generous ovations at each performance. Pretty haute stuff.