Wolf Trap Opera’s Romeo et Juliette: Great Music, True Love, and Lots of Kissing

Wolf Trap Opera gives us a summer valentine of an opera where true love triumphs over all, even death itself.  It gives us a story of young hearts, and young impetuousness delivered by young opera singers.  I swear, this tragedy felt so light and lovely early on I wanted Juliette, played by soprano Madison Leonard, to break into a version of “I feel pretty”, though her singing of “Je veux vivre” was equally trilling, and any tears at the closing scene are tears of joy.  It’s a story we all know and have seen in many versions and many formats from Shakespeare’s original to Bernstein’s West Side Story.  There are shadings to the story-telling, but no surprises, and for this opera by composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, that’s a good thing.

 Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

That we have seen many versions, and the nature of the story itself, allows us to readily accept it’s updating to the 21st century by director Louisa Muller.  Kudos to her; just about everything in this staging works.  The staging and the performers’ abilities to immerse us in that youthful spirit pulls us comfortably into our suspension of disbelief; corny phrases and incongruities become acceptable.  Romeo and Juliet stories can be fine vehicles for dealing with a darker edge of conflicts between warring factions.  I can imagine for example that it could be used today to shine a light on the conflicts between different religions or sects as it did for clashes between Puerto Ricans and whites in West Side Story.  However, Gounod’s version keeps the attention on the love story.  Ms. Muller’s staging supports that telling by having a simple set with a few props, including smart phones used to take selfies, moved in and out (kudos to scenic designer Timothy Mackabee) and including costumes by costume designer Amanda Seymour that are amusing to the eye and help keep the mood light and that help identify the clans.  The fights and death scene are beautifully choreographed.  And credit chorus master Jeremy Frank - cast ensembles singing as chorus sounded magnificent. 

 Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In fact, as appealing to the eye as this production is, it is its sound that hits the highest note.  I had only heard a few arias from this opera.  Hearing it in its entirety, I find it to rival Puccini’s music in beauty.  And Wolf Trap Opera’s head, Kim Witman, should be credited for taking steps to give us the music in full force.  To allow for the 46 instruments recommended for the score, the orchestra is moved from the pit to behind a screen at the back of the stage, which in the cozy Barns, gives you a full orchestral effect. The orchestra under Conductor Eric Melear seemed to take a minute to come together at Tuesday night's show, but then delivered a fine performance; while supporting and not over powering the singers, it drew my attention to the beauty of the music on several occasions.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) and Juliet (Madison Leonard) kneel in a marraige ceremony performed by Father Laurent (Anthony Reed); Amy Rosen in a pants role sings Stephano's aria. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The young performers are already accomplished opera singers; I have heard the two leads sing with Washington National Opera.  Our Romeo, tenor Alexander McKissick, just finished a stint as a Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist.  Ms. Leonard, also a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, recently won first place in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  Romeo et Juliette gives them a chance in the spotlight to shine and they shone!  Both have beautiful voices and excellent technique.  It is a pleasure to hear them deliver Gounod’s arias.  Ms. Leonard’s acting and singing in the sleeping potion scene is especially impressive, worthy of an award.  The supporting cast all handle their roles well, adding to this production.   Special note is made of young hot head Tybalt, played by Richard Trey Smagur, Taylor Raven as Juliette’s nurse, Patrick Guetti as Juliette’s betrothed, Joshua Conyers as Juliette’s father, Thomas Glass as Mercutio, and Anthony Reed as Father Laurent.  Special mention should be given to mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen in a pants role as Stephano, Romeo’s page.  She shows feisty theatrical flair as well as accomplished singing in delivering Stephano’s aria; I can see Carmen in her future. 

 Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

 Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Ahhh, I feel better.  It is so nice to have Wolf Trap Opera back on their home turf, making opera fun.  With June’s Idomeneo, they ventured into the harsh aftermath of war; even with a so-called happy ending, I went home and fixed myself something to drink and was argumentative with my family for the next week.  But in July they give us Romeo and Juliette, two attractive young lovers smitten with true love doing lots of kissing to make us believe it.  Remember your teen years?

The Fan Experience: Additional performances are scheduled for July 19 and 21; close to a sell out but a few good tickets remain.  Ms. Witman’s pre-opera talk an hour before the show is entertaining and informative, and you get treated to an aria by Studio Artists.  I have mentioned numerous times the pleasure of The Barns as a venue for opera: food, drinks, cozy confines putting you close to the stage and performers, free parking, and easy in and out.  WTO’s next production will not have the easy in and out, but the parking is still free and the Filene Center has a lawn section.  The summer’s final WTO offering, Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto, is a must for opera fans and a great starter opera for newbies, coming up Friday, August 3; tickets still available.