The Lyric Opera’s 2015-16 season ended with a return to a classic, classically staged: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, set in the middle of a town square surrounded by Veronese balconies. A few details suggested surrealism in the middle of Michael Yeargan’s period set, such as a single, tall column supporting nothing, and a sash of white sheet that brought softness and movement to the immovable stone set. But this wasn’t a night for innovation. The way this production is sung and played, let alone staged, practically demands that the audience relax into its seats and just let the mélodies have their way.

Joseph Calleja (Roméo) and Susanna Phillips (Juliette) © Todd Rosenberg
Joseph Calleja (Roméo) and Susanna Phillips (Juliette)
© Todd Rosenberg

Gounod’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play – as is typical of most such adaptations – seems both to summarize the original and also expand it, finding a carefully planned sequence of moods that can each account for a broad swath of text. The breeziness of the condensed plot sometimes ran up confusingly against the director Bartlett Sher’s attempts to vary the expensive-looking and monotonous stage: at one point, a white sheet covers the square to suggest a bed upon which Juliet lounges, only to be interrupted by the priest, who hurries in and treads all over the sheet. I wondered about the aims of this production, which first appeared at La Scala and the Salzburg Festival: why blow the budget on a set that so expensively strives to place the action in space and time when a single sheet is sufficient to throw that sense of placement off?

But the point on this evening wasn’t for us to overthink the optics, as a politician’s aide might say. Rather, the deep political matter of the play set forth a stage for singing in the French manner of the most lavish degree, as rich as bouillabaisse. The top clam in this stew was Joseph Calleja’s Roméo, who makes the role brawny and sympathetic, crackling from the first note with a megawatt tenor that doesn’t let up. Even without precise, calibrated direction from Emmanuel Villaume in the pit, it is doubtful that any orchestra could have overpowered this voice, as forthright as a spotlight shined onto the audience.

Modulating Romeo’s attractive sincerity was Susanna Phillips as Juliet, who stood out in a strong ensemble from the moment she stepped into the midst of a brown-green sea of period costuming with her bright pink quinceañera dress. Phillips sang with a smaller voice that most of the cast, though I prefer to think of it as inviting and precise. Darting around Gounod’s architectural phrases, like a hummingbird circling its target, finding nuance in phrasings that could have been more forthrightly pleasurable, she brought depth to Juliet’s youthful infatuation. Without Phillips, the production would have sunk under too much unvaried richness; with her, it remains aloft.

Marianne Crebassa (Stéphano) © Todd Rosenberg
Marianne Crebassa (Stéphano)
© Todd Rosenberg

Joshua Hopkins complements Calleja in voice and temperament as Mercutio, and there are no weaknesses in a strong supporting cast consisting of Jason Slayden as Tybalt, Christian Van Horn as Friar Laurence, and Deborah Nansteel as an intimidating Gertrude. On her own level, however, was Marianne Crebassa as Romeo’s page, who did not so much sing as vanquish her Act III aria, leaving the stage as littered with victims as did the excellently choreographed swordfight that follows.

If the production is full of pleasures, they do not immediately or obviously connect to a sense of some larger plan, which might have been helped along with a more dynamic set. But that might be missing the point with this Romeo and Juliet, which moves briskly and radiates a warm and bright tone through most of its three-and-a-half hour run. It is like the life of a tragic teenage love: ardent, quick, and a little thoughtless.

***11