You may have read or seen Romeo and Juliet before, but when adapted as an opera, the expressive music brings greater emotional intensity. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Charles Gounod’s opera Romeo and Juliet takes this well-known story to a higher artistic level.
The production stays true to the original work and the staging makes you feel as if you’re watching a play within an opera. Before the house lights dimmed, the performers took their places onstage and looked as if they were getting ready for everything to begin. The set was simple, with lofty stone walls that remained static throughout as a backdrop to the center of the stage. This allowed for easy and timely transitions between each scene, also making it seem more like a play.
With some operas, the acting and staging is secondary to the music and singing, but this wasn’t the case with Lyric Opera’s Romeo and Juliet. The performers were highly engaged with each other, and each type of scene — from the opening party to the fight between Romeo (Joseph Calleja) and Tybalt (Jason Slayden) to Romeo and Juliet’s (Susanna Phillips) interactions — was vibrant and dramatic to watch.
The performance is in French with English supertitles, and the language is well suited for the romantic music, lively chorus and quick dialogue. Gounod’s 19th-century work is warm and lively with lush melodies that make for an enjoyable listening experience.
Calleja as Romeo and Phillips as Juliet were a well-matched pair to play the star-crossed lovers. Some portrayals of Romeo and Juliet’s love at first sight seem improbable and forced, but Phillips was convincing as a love-struck Juliet, and Calleja was equally charming, determined to have Juliet at any cost. Their voices were also complimentary, especially in their mutually impressive upper ranges. Their scenes ranged from charming to truly heartbreaking and were captivating throughout.
The supporting characters also added to the strength of the performance. Deborah Nansteel did an excellent job of portraying Juliet’s bawdy nurse, adding welcomed moments of comic relief. Christian Van Horn was also a standout as Friar Lawrence, whose impressive bass voice added the right gravity to his character.
This was one of my favorite productions at Lyric this season. I always enjoy attending the opera for different reasons based on the show. Some I have enjoyed for the storyline, others the music and artistry and the rest because they are exciting to watch. Romeo and Juliet combines all of these elements for a fantastic production. The music is emotionally charged, and the talent of each singer is apparent. Each scene furthered the story and didn’t drag out longer than necessary to convey the plot. It made a story that I’ve seen several versions of in films and plays come to life in a unique artistic way.
For a different interpretation of this classic play that brings vibrancy and life through powerful singing, give Lyric Opera’s production a try.
Romeo and Juliet runs through March 19 at the Lyric Opera House (20 N. Wacker Drive). Student tickets are available for $20 on select dates through Lyric Opera’s NEXT student ticket program. For more information, visit lyricopera.org.