Friday, July 25, 2008

O Nuit divine - Portland Opera's Romeo et Juliette

Last night was the opening of PortOpera’s 14th season, this season featuring Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Members of the Portland Symphony were in the capable hands of newcomer Israel Gursky who led and shaped an often stunning reading of the score, pushing it along where it sometimes needs it, and filling a score that in some hands can be a bit long and languorous, with a youthful energy this work needs in order to succeed.

First off: special mention must be made for the chorus work in this opera, they’ve got a lot to do and this ensmelbe looked and sounded about as good as one can hope for in this work: stunning. Every singer brought an individuality, a certain look and whether en masse or in smaller ensembles, created a living, breathing, sumptuous sounding (and brilliantly costumed) citizenry of Verona.

Uruguayan tenor Gaston Rivera is new to me and I had no idea quite what to expect. What we got was the finest performance of the night. What stunning tone, elegant phrasing, perfect sounding French. There was also a virile athleticism on display as Romeo scaled walls, hung from Juliette’s balcony, jumped into the fray with Tybalt, and proudly went all "Porky Pig" (slang for "shirt on, naked from waist down"). Rivera made a meal of the little recit before "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" – which in no way prepared me for a truly beautiful reading of the aria itself. Rivera made an absolutely stunning – breathtaking actually – effect singing mezzo di voce in the reprise with an entirely different color, steadiness of tone and perhaps as close to a voix mixte ending high note that we are likely to hear in the role today. It earned him the first ovation the night and was entirely deserved.

Rivera, in fact, would not disappoint all night and in addition to that voice, his acting was possessed of an earnestness that was touching, and full of subtleties: e.g., when first spying Juliette, he is hidden, barely seen in the shadows beneath a balustrade - his hands rose - flying almost birdlike - until they fell, landing onto his heart and the way he breathed, appeared as though he would ascend onto a cloud. It was one of those magical effects I thought I alone noticed, but which during intermission I heard dozens of people praising. It was THAT kind of a performance.

Jennifer Black’s Juliette began not at the same vocal level as her partner. Accurate musicianship (though no trill in the Waltz) and a tone that reminded me a bit of Mady Mesple – not the "vinegary" aspect, but with a uniquely pressed quality to the vibrato that took a while for me to warm up to (others seemed not to share issue). She moved gracefully, had a beautifully expressive face, and moved with a wonderful sense of controlled spontaneity, yet looked a bit too forced – bolted down, even, in her Juliette gowns. All of that, however, would change following intermission.

In the bedroom scene Black appeared almost an entirely different woman – more graceful, more sensual, voluptuous, and more freely gowned. There is almost no way to better describe this scene than "smoking hot" and while tasteful, there was certainly no lack of sexual energy or chemistry here. This same sensual quality became apparent in her voice which grew to a freer, often ravishing sound. Worst decision of the night: Omitting the Potion Aria. Black clearly was ready for it vocally and emotionally. So was the audience who were now really along for the ride – you could feel it in the house. This move robbed the soprano of making an even more lasting impression as the role of Romeo is so much meatier. Nonetheless, Ms. Black’s two death scenes were impressive.

Visually, Dona D. Vaughn’s staging was a miracle – a study of classical portraits. Her arrangements of the chorus staggeringly beautiful. But nowhere was her skilled hand more evident than in the staging of the death scene. The elegant drape of the simple white drop over the balcony, the placement of the dagger, the angles of the couple’s bodies, the puddle of her death shroud - it was a perfect geometrically composed painting come to life and Black and Rivera drew gasps and sniffles – he during his death crawl, she with her final breath. My god.

But there is more to this opera than the couple and Vaughan infused the action with a boundless energy and sense of velocity. Characters who often come across as static or recede into the "minor role haze" were here given prominence. The best example being Sara Sturdivant’s Nurse. With a rich, plumy sound – and made to look like every Nurse in every production of the play or opera she had the energy of youth, went chasing, kicking and grappling after the youth with a joyous ferocity. Brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.

Tenor John McVeigh lent genuine star quality to the proceedings and probably fills out Tybalt's tights and codpiece better than any singer in history. With an elegant, tragic and angry virility, wedded to that crystal clean voice he was like a talented version of Keanu Reeves - with high notes. Great with a sword as well! This is a favorite singer of mine and having heard him all around the country, what a treat it was to see him playing for the home team!

The Mercutio, Michael Mayes was a welcome newcomer – a handsome, imposing giant of a youth, he moved with the hallmark physicality of this production and played both his comic and tragic elements with enormous heart. I want to see more of this guy.

Lauren McNeese – our formerly dazzling Rosina was perfection as Stephano, dispatching her showpiece aria with skill and humor.

No secret that I’ve been a huge fan of Jeffrey Wells since for many years – have never seen a less than dazzling performance from him and his Capulet was no exception. In addition to that rich, voice which has shone no sign of age in the 20 years I’ve been following him, he remains one of the best damn actors in the world of opera. Period.

Ten Feet tall and looking all of 15 years old – when bass Jordan Bisch, opened his mouth as Frere Laurent everyone around me sat straight up. The robust size, richness and elegant beauty of his voice belied what our eyes were seeing: someone so young, with that much finesse and sense of style. It was a huge performance. Another one to keep your eyes (and ears) on.

Luxury casting extended to the brief role of the Duke, here taken by Malcolm Smith, who offered an authoritative stamp on the role and still shows plenty of vocal cream.

The instant ovation at the end grew steadily – and at Mr. Rivera’s entrance turned into a standing ovation for a truly star making performance. Near hurricane force winds and driving, pelting rain could not dampen the magic made on this night.Bravi, bravissimo to everyone at PortOpera for a "nuit divine!"

G. Paul Padillo
Portland, ME

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