Review: Austin Opera’s “Romeo & Juliet”

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(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

 

Austin Opera’s current production of Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” — which plays through Sunday at the Long Center — is a return to form in the new year, a work that offers the things opera fans expect. Austin-Opera---Romeo-and-Juliet---2015---Photographer-Lynn-Lane-

It captures your attention from the start with waves of sound, as a rather gloriously full chorus lines the stage to greet us, dressed in a collection of rich pastels under moody lighting. (Costumes are designed by Susan Allred.)

Soon we meet Romeo (tenor Stephen Costello) roughhousing with his Montague buddies, play fighting and sneaking into the Capulets’ ball where, of course, he meets Juliet (soprano Joyce El-Khoury).

Costello and El-Khoury have a winning chemistry on stage, a virtual necessity in pulling off this physical (and intimate) work, and both come across convincingly as the youthful and uninhibited teenagers they’re playing, El-Khoury in bouncing girlish curls and Costello with boyish blond hair and uniform.

Costello — the audience was told on opening night — was fighting an illness, but thankfully it was impossible to tell from the hall. The voices of both singers made an impression.

Every high-schooler knows this story, so it was nice to see that some of the dramatic moments were played skillfully enough to draw us in. The wedding scene is funny and arouses our sympathies.

And elsewhere, fight scenes are smartly choreographed, and the swordplay — and its accompanying metallic tic-tac — is convincing.

Music is in the hyper-romantic vein, which certainly feels appropriate for the story of these star-crossed lovers. (It mostly holds up, though at the death the score takes a turn into what’s unmistakably kitschy territory.) Artistic director Richard Buckley kept a strong baton on the pulse, nimbly moving the action along and managing a beautiful balance of sounds on opening night, including a strong sense of dynamic contrast and some fabulous woodwind licks.

Designer Eric Fielding’s two-story columned set is effective, though a touch dormant. All the various balconies, stairs and mausoleums are couched between their shadows.

Scenes move along fairly quickly when the stakes are high (and they so often are in Shakespeare, after all), though a couple do nothing for the plot. After the flurry of fighting, the penultimate act slows to a crawl.

Romeo and Juliet are often isolated in these later scenes, and in part we miss the energy of quicker musical numbers and that energetic chorus.

But it’s the youthful chemistry of El-Khoury and Costello that wins the day. Their sensitive singing and strong acting carry us to the end, into a moving finale for this smartly realized period production.

Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” continues. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 3 p.m. Sunday. http://www.austinopera.org


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