Star-cross’d singers

PORTOpera's Romeo et Juliette
By EMILY PARKHURST  |  July 23, 2008
IS THERE A NIGHTINGALE? Singing Romeo et Juliette.

Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod | produced by PORTOpera | 7:30 pm July 24 and 26 | at Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St, Portland | 207.842.0800
This weekend, PORTOpera will present one of the most beloved love stories of all time. In ballet, paintings, and film, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been adapted and presented in nearly every art form. French Romantic-era composer Charles Gounod’s version of the tragic tale is the most famous operatic setting.

The ubiquity of the story is what Jennifer Black, who sings the role of Juliet in PORTOpera’s summer production, believes will be a drawing point for audiences.

“If this is your first opera, this is a great opera to see,” Black says. Audience members who are familiar with Shakespeare’s play may not even need the scrolling subtitles. Gounod sticks so closely to the original tale, including the famous balcony scene, the sword fight and stabbing death of Mercutio, and the tragic lovers’ death scene at the end, that, were the actors not singing, an audience member might forget which version she has come to see.

Opening in Paris in 1867, Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette ran for one hundred consecutive performances, solidifying the composer’s contribution to the genre. Gounod was not a particularly prolific composer, but his opera Faust was also extremely popular and is still often performed in opera houses today. Gounod is also famous for his version of Ave Maria, a current wedding favorite, the melody of which he composed to be sung over the Prelude of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.

“Juliette is such an icon,” says Black. “But I’m trying to make her as human as possible. For instance, in Act 1 she appears as an awkward teenager, and then as the story goes on, her rebellious side comes out. She has a strong will and, like most 14-year-old girls, she is volatile.”

This is Black’s first time singing Juliette, but she seems confident in her interpretation.

“I just think of myself at that age. If my father had told me I was going to marry a man I didn’t know when I was 14, it would have been the end of the world.”

Although arranged marriages are not common in modern American households, the idea of teenage rebellion and young love are timeless.

The story of Romeo and Juliet lends itself well to Romantic opera. Gounod does make a few small changes to the story, mostly for operatic reasons. For instance, Juliette’s waltz aria in the first act is not in the play, and in the infamous death scene, the lovers die together rather than Juliette waking to find her Romeo dead. Also worthy of note is the fact that the Capulet and Montague families do not reconcile at the end of the opera like they do in the play.

New York City resident and conductor Israel Gursky and artistic and stage director Dona Vaugh seem to work very well together despite the pressure of time constraints. The performers had only 20 days to rehearse and stage the opera.

“Israel and Dona have a good working relationship. The balance between them is great,” says Black. “And this is such a great, young cast.”

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Emily Parkhurst can be reached

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