Infusing “Romeo et Juliette” with…”Romeo and Juliet”

Madison Opera opens its season with the Gounod gem

Madison Opera launches its 56th season this weekend with Romeo and Juliette, a gem of the repertoire that adds to the closing celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I count myself a lover of Shakespeare (although I never saw a live version of the original play until last season at American Players Theater), and over the years had never had a chance to see Gounod’s opera staged. It is certainly a repertoire item, but the composer’s Faust is much more likely to be staged.

I sat down with Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith for a brief chat in the company’s inviting offices earlier this week, and, remembering that last season’s Tales of Hoffman was a personal favorite of hers, I asked where Romeo et Juliette ranked in her personal assessment. Not surprisingly, Smith is a fan, but what is interesting is “Actually, I’ve never produced it before. Of course I’ve seen performances of it, but this is my first chance to really get to know it. It is so incredibly beautiful, just melody after melody. But it’s also funny and action-packed. ”

As is often the case, the performances will feature singers who have already made some lasting memories on the Overture Hall stage. The role of Romeo will be sung by John Irvin, seen here a couple of seasons back in The Barber of Seville, and who sang a world premiere last summer at the Salzburg Festival, while his star-crossed love, Juliet, will be brought to life by Emily Birsan. The Neenah native has firmly established herself as a local favorite, and her fans should be even more excited to hear Smith say, “This is her [Emily’s] first time singing Juliet, and she says that this role fits her like a glove.” (The two lovers are depicted above, courtesy of James Gill.)

Yet the most intriguing aspect of Madison Opera’s production is the background of the director, Doug Scholz-Carlson, making his fourth appearance with Madison Opera. “Doug directs opera, but also runs the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Minnesota, and has directed the original play as well as the opera,” Smith relates. “So he has great insights into the piece—frankly more than all of the rest of us!—since he is so familiar with the original material.

These performances will also mark the first time John DeMain has conducted the complete opera, and with the Madison Symphony sounding as lovely as ever in their first two programs this season, we are sure to be treated to a sparkling night (or matinee) of music. The performances are Friday night at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon at 2:30. And even if you’re not motivated to see this particular work, Smith gives us one last compelling reason to go: “If people need an escape from the current news cycle, they should come on over to Overture Hall and escape for three hours. Melody soothes all things!”

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