Charles Gounod was torn between a life of religious devotion and artistic creation. He was a prodigy at both painting and piano, yet committed his life to a Carmelite monastery at an early age. Apparently the best of young Charles' intentions weren't good enough. He soon became known as "the philandering monk," and the Carmelites tossed him.
So it should come as no surprise that faced with the daunting task of scratching out a living as a composer, Gounod gravitated to a formula that involved taking heavy works of classical literature, removing the large philosophical issues and reducing them to overheated love stories. His greatest and most enduring success came when he trimmed down Goethe's ponderous novel of metaphysics and religion to the romance of Faust and Marguerite. Romeo and Juliet was created as the follow-up to Faust. Gounod's simplification of Shakespeare's play prunes much of the intrigue in the palaces of the warring Capulets and Montagues and focuses on the doomed romance of their offspring.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis specializes in luring up-and-coming singers by offering them a chance at bigger roles than they could get at more famous East Coast or European venues. This youthfulness works to the company's advantage in Romeo and Juliet, which is built around the young lovers. In the title roles, Alyson Cambridge and Frédéric Antoun bring bouncy naiveté, tenderness and unmitigated passion to the parts of the star-crossed couple. Each is called upon for major arias, which separate four lovely duets. Antoun's lustrous, full tenor melds beautifully with Cambridge's sweetly evocative soprano in the duets. Both can act and sing simultaneously, adding believability to the deep emotion expressed in their various solo arias.
Gounod created the opera version of a chick flick, and director John Copley's sprightly staging reinforces the theme of youthful romance. OTSL's Romeo and Juliet cuts out much of the excess and frippery that's a standard part of French opera. Many of the repeats and all of the ballet that weighed down the Paris productions of the nineteenth century have been exorcised, leaving a lean, energetic presentation that seems more in tune with American sensibilities. Richly costumed Capulets in satiny red and Montagues in velvety blue cavort at a ball, then fence with athletic bravado. OTSL brought in a fight director, Regina Cerimele-Mechley, to choreograph the swordplay. She created three very different bouts that follow one another in rapid succession, in which the fighting styles of the five characters involved reflect their ages and experience.
Kate Lindsey, who gave us a sultry Mercedes in last year's staging of Carmen, applies her elegantly burnished mezzo-soprano to a transgender casting as Stephano, Romeo's male page, aided by a whopper of a codpiece. The maturer roles of Tybalt, Romeo's nemesis; Lord Capulet, Juliet's father; Friar Laurence, who performs their secret marriage and concocts Juliet's sleeping potion; and Gertrude, Juliet's nurse, are sung by Steven Sanders, Steven Bryant, Kevin Short and Jane Shaulis. All bring vocal heft and commanding stage presence that nicely balances the youthful ardor of the lead roles. Further gravitas is added by the dark, rich chorus of the fighting families and their retainers, directed by Sandra Horst.
The sets and costumes, designed by Robert Perdziola, evoke the opulent lives of Renaissance nobility with a minimum of fuss and to maximum effect. The stage set is composed of towers that rotate to become the courtyards, ballroom, bedrooms, country church, Capulet family tomb and famous balcony demanded by the script.
OTSL's home, the Loretto-Hilton, is an intimate space that has generally boasts excellent acoustics. But in the past, during orchestral crescendos or when the singer's position on stage favored one side of the house to the detriment of the other, it's been hard to understand the words being sung. The company has addressed the problem by installing screens on either side of the stage and projecting the text being sung on them. The screens are carefully placed to be unobtrusive but easily visible. It's billed as an experiment. The experiment is a success and enriches the experience.