Santa Fe Opera presented Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in Stephen Lawless’ mid 19th-century staging, a co-production with Barcelona's Liceu. Before the overture, General Director Charles MacKay came onstage to announce that Stephen Costello was ill and would be replaced by Joshua Guerrero, a graduate of the Los Angeles Opera Young Artist Program. Having seen Guerrero as Greenhorn in LAO’s Moby Dick, I expected a great performance and was not disappointed. As Roméo he was a passionate lover and a strong adversary. He sang with a wide range of both lyrical and dramatic vocal colors. I hope to see a great deal more of him in the near future.

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) © Ken Howard
Ailyn Pérez (Juliette)
© Ken Howard

Lawless’ production, which opened and closed with coffins center stage, emphasized death. At the beginning of the Prologue, the choristers were robed in black, but when the waltz started they ripped off their dark coats to reveal colorful military uniforms and off-white ball gowns.

Ailyn Pérez was a charming Juliette who made the audience believe she was a teenager whose father did not yet allow her a glass of champagne. Pérez’s soprano has grown considerably since 2010, when I first heard her Juliette in San Diego. Now she has a lyrical opulence that blankets the audience with its beauty. She still displays serious coloratura in her Waltz Song, but at this time her Poison Aria is a dramatic gem as well. Together she and Guerrero were ardent lovers who desired to be together no matter what the consequences. I found myself rooting for them despite my knowledge of the opera’s tragic conclusion.

Tim Mix looked a bit young to be Juliette’s father, but he declaimed his lines in easily understood French. Deborah Nansteel, who portrayed the unforgettable former slave in Cold Mountain here last summer, was a memorable Gertrude. Baritones Elliot Madore as Mercutio and Cooper Nolan as Tybalt made the audience realize the depth of hatred between the feuding families. Thaddeus Ennen as Paris and Nicholas Davis as Grégorio created interest in the Capulet enclave while Benvolio, played by Peter Scott Drackley, showed the mettle of the Montagues.

Emily Fons, as the boy Stéphano, sang his caustic song with sweet tones that belied his evil intent. Veteran bass Raymond Aceto was a well-meaning Frère Laurent who tried to bring peace and reconciliation to the feuding families. His low tones were especially reassuring when he tried to help Juliette avoid marrying Paris. At the end, when the entire tragedy was apparent, it was the Duke, eloquently portrayed by Solomon Howard, who pointed the way to the future.

Emily Fons (Stéphano) © Ken Howard
Emily Fons (Stéphano)
© Ken Howard

Conductor Harry Bicket gave us more of Gounod’s score than we usually hear and it made for a long evening. It was well worth it, however, because we got to hear wonderful melodies sung by world-class artists. A plethora of instrumental solos demonstrated the virtuosity of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra players. Bicket’s tempi were always fast enough to move the story along at a brisk place without slurring any musical passages. Despite its updating, this Roméo et Juliette remained the same romantic tragedy we all love.

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