Young Leads Win Hearts in Madison Opera’s “Romeo”

A tender Romeo et Juliette opens Madison Opera’s 56th season

The timeless story of the bitter and deadly feud between the Montagues and Capulets might have been well-timed for the divisiveness of our current electoral state nationally, but the better news is that Madison Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette was sweet salve for any stressed citizens desperate for an escape.

Of course the principal reason for mounting the work now was to join in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (other year-ending events include the exhibit of a First Folio at the Chazen Musuem of Art, and University Opera’s staging of Falstaff on November 11, 13 and 15). This auditor, for one, was just glad it was hear at any given time; somehow in all my years of opera-going, I’d never managed to take in a live performance of the complete work.

Under general director Kathryn Smith and artistic director John DeMain, local opera buffs have enjoyed a consistent diet of presentations ranging from solid to near-spectacular, but always marked by fresh voices which are usually already firmly on the path to significant careers. The experience Sunday afternoon at Overture Hall was in that category, although it seemed on this occasion that the depth of strong casting was not as secure as in other productions as it pertains to the secondary roles. Fortunately, the titled lovers were brought to vivid life by soprano Emily Birsan and tenor John Irvin, and since Gounod’s re-telling of the Bard’s classic focuses so steadily on the smitten teens, the audience easily fell under the sway of the pair of 31-year old singers (pictured above, courtesy of James Gill).

Birsan had given us a preview of her big Act I aria at Opera in the Park last July, and the hopes and expectations raised for the full performance were consistently realized. One can only surmise how far the Neenah-born lady can go as her voice continues to strengthen and mature. Already she is undaunted by the agility and range required in this role, and brought a realistic sweetness to the part.

Irvin was a returning artist as well, having appeared here in The Barber of Seville a season ago (the one production I’ve missed since 2010). Again, one wants to project ahead to a time when his voice carries a bit more heft and color—but the best news is that as Romeo he never sounded strained or lacking in volume.

The look of it all was happily traditional, with scenery and props from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, costumes of Malabar Ltd. and some principal costumes from the Minnesota Opera Costume Shop earlier this year.

Director Doug Scholz-Carlson used it all (including a large cast and chorus) to great effect. The point had been made in this space and others last week that Scholz-Carlson brings the great perspective of having directed this and Shakepeare’s original. Sad to say that yours truly is not literate enough with both versions to detect how the director may have illuminated some of the play’s details that are necessarily omitted from the opera…but the performance did have those moments when the heady mix of artistic disciplines that comprise opera combined to create memorable moments.

The first of these occurred in Act I, when Tybalt and Juliette first realized that it is Romeo who in fact is at the Capulet’s ball: all of the actors freeze, as Romeo sings of the beauty that has literally smacked him between the eyes. Marcus Dilliard’s lighting (fabulous throughout the afternoon), and the Madison Symphony Orchestra team up to bring us inside the unfolding drama, in a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of music.

Speaking of which, DeMain led a larger-than-usual (for the Opera, that is) MSO, and they were on point. With our maestro’s long experience, it was no surprise that the work emerged with an ebb and flow completely natural (it was DeMain’s first opportunity to conduct the complete work; perhaps I shouldn’t feel so bad about not having seen it sooner!).

One of the supporting roles must be singled out for major praise: Stephanie Lauricella as Romeo’s page, in her Madison Opera debut. What would otherwise be a minor “trousers” role becomes a stepping-stone to larger opportunities, as Stephano (yes, that’s the page’s name!) opens the second act with a lengthy sequence of song mocking the Capulets and playfully prancing about trying to elicit a confrontational response. Lauricella relished the moment, and the vocal and acting promise would seem to predict bigger and better things for her soon.

Sidney Outlaw, as Mercutio, also gave us what we hoped for when he was here in July as well, and one hopes he is back very soon in a larger, and perhaps darker, role. The voice is strong, and the stage presence has the potential to be formidable.

It is easy to overlook the behind-the-scenes contributions of Anthony Cao, the chorus master; the work requires not only a large chorus, but they are onstage and singing a great deal—and very well, on this occasion.

Thank you, Madison Opera, for taking my mind off the news feed; but I do think whatever happens Tuesday, I’ll hit the Madison Symphony concert on Friday and Falstaff at the Music Hall Sunday afternoon…I’ll take two escapes and report back in a few days.

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