Romeo et Juliette, Chicago Lyric Opera, January 1999

Husband-and-wife team live up to their billing in Lyric's 'Romeo'
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 25 January 1999

They came, they sang, they conquered.

They, of course, are Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, the
husband-and-wife singers who have been the talk of the opera world for
the better part of the decade. The real-life fable of their onstage
meeting in London, subsequent romance and 1996 marriage backstage at the
Metropolitan Opera has made the duo a hot media property quite apart
from the quality of their singing.

But the tremendous publicity buildup that attended the Romanian- born
soprano and French-born tenor as they cut a swath through the major
European theaters and the Met has at the same time created unrealistic
expectations these artists were not always prepared to meet.

Thus, when the Lyric Opera presented the singers in their Chicago debuts
as the star-crossed lovers of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" Saturday at
the Civic Opera House, all fingers were crossed. Would opera's "love
couple" buckle under the pressure?

Never fear: Both artists acquitted themselves very well and were
rewarded with a volley of ovations and bouquets at the end. After all,
opportunities to hear young, charismatic real-life lovers portraying
doomed lovers on the operatic stage are as rare as they are

Apart from serving as a safe debut-vehicle for the Alagnas, there wasn't
too much point in Lyric's reviving "Romeo et Juliette." This is
Shakespeare's poetic tragedy with a sweet Gallic gloss -- a "love duet
with interruptions," as it has been called. Even under the best
circumstances, the opera comes off as a fragrant, graceful, formulaic

At least Lyric surrounded its star attractions with a solid production,
which came to us from Toulouse, France, via London and Paris, staged by
Nicolas Joel and Arnaud Bernard in Carlo Tommasi's traditional sets and
costumes. John Nelson conducted with a brisk, vigorous hand, refusing to
sentimentalize an already sentimental opera. He paced the opera well and
drew refined playing from the orchestra.

The kind of romantic chemistry that comes naturally to Alagna and
Gheorghiu can only help a flawed Romantic opera. With her raven- haired
beauty, Gheorghiu made us feel the emotional intensity of Juliette's
blossoming to womanhood through powerful first love. The tenor cut a
virile, athletic figure, sometimes literally throwing himself into his
role with boyish ardor. In the bridal chamber scene, Romeo slid across
the stage into a lip-lock with Juliette that made one worry about loose
nails and stray splinters.

Vocally they were also fine, although here the results were more mixed.
Much of Juliette's music lies in the middle register, where Gheorghiu
was able to display her dark, luscious tone to vibrant effect. She
reserved her warmest singing for the restored aria, "Amour ranime mon
courage," in which the Capulets' darling steels herself to drink the
fateful potion. The waltz, however, was a disappointment, all
hard-glittering coloratura but no charm. By temperament Gheorghiu is
probably more a Tosca than a Juliette, so she had trouble making us
believe her as the naive, impulsive teenager of the first two acts.

Alagna commands a lyric tenor that is firm, sweet and soft- grained, if
not large. His diction is impeccable in this classic French tenor role.
He takes risks, some of them ill-advised. Perhaps because he is
unfamiliar with the Opera House acoustics, he tended to pump up his
sound, pushing him off pitch and ignoring several of Gounod's mezza-voce
shadings. He managed to squeeze out several crowd-rousing high notes but
the effort seemed to leave his voice dry and tired by the end of a long
evening. Still, his instinctive style and seemingly boundless energy
carried him through.

Lyric Center alumnus Brian Montgomery as Mercutio and, in his Lyric
debut, William Burden as his equally hot-headed opposite, Tybalt, looked
dashing in their swordplay and sang well. Rene Pape, also in a house
debut, earned the audience's sympathy for singing Friar Laurence through
an announced viral infection. Jeffrey Wells, another Lyric first-timer,
delivered a strongly sung, credibly rounded portrait of Capulet, though
saddled with a congested throat. Patricia Risley made sprightly work of
Stephano's dramatically irrelevant chanson.

Gheorghiu and Alagna will sing the remaining performances through Feb.
5, after which they will be replaced by Elizabeth Futral and Giuseppe
Sabbatini. "Romeo" plays to Feb. 28.


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