The Atlanta Opera ends a strong season by presenting one of its best shows in recent memory, a fantastically engaging production of Charles Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" running at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through May 15.
The production gives Gounod’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic the simple but infinitely variable setting of an Elizabethan theater. Originally built for a series of Shakespeare-themed opera productions at the Glimmerglass Festival by designer John Conklin, the large double-level set with two staircases replicates the look and feel of Shakespeare’s Globe with its wooden timbers, balconies and colonnades.
As with the Globe, there is a surprising number of interesting places for action to unfold, and the set allows for a wide variety of stage tableaux, an aspect that Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun takes full advantage of throughout; though the set itself is unchanging, it seemingly adapts well to changing moods. From the grandeur of busy, festive crowd scenes to an isolated, darkened tomb, it suits and supports the drama placed on it so well that it’s easy to forget that it remains the same structure throughout.
Zvulun has a cinematic aesthetic as a director, and it’s especially effective here. One can easily see opera as a precursor to cinema and its language in this production in the particular and inventive combination of music, image and narrative to create drama. Lighting designer Thomas Hase suits this mode with a film lover’s sense of smartly paced dramatic development.
Costume designer Joanna Schmink creates two eras of dress for the show. In this conception of the opera, Romeo’s family, the Montagues, are Bohemian bon vivants, singers, actors, artists, dancers and acrobats who wear the garb of Shakespearean players, while Juliet’s family, the Capulets, are clearly a more somber, aristocratic mid-19th-century family; the men wear military uniforms.
Having costumes from two time periods isn’t as jarring as it might sound but instead creates an effortlessly dreamlike, almost timeless feel to the action. Costumes are elaborate and specific, but like the set itself, they’re open-ended enough to allow for some imaginative participation by the audience, a curious strength of the production. This was effective for me throughout, though I inexplicably found some bonnets worn by the Capulet women in a late crowd scene to be strangely out of place, the only time the dual-era costumes seemed not to jibe.
Music Director Arthur Fagen focuses the orchestra on evoking the almost overwhelmingly lush beauty of Gounod's score, never shying away from the old-fashioned, stormy drama either. Detail could sometimes get lost in all the dense, rich layers, and I occasionally craved it. In a star performance, Nicole Cabell, winner of the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005, delights and intrigues throughout as a lovely Juliet. The late scene in which she drinks Friar Laurence's draught has a breathtaking sense of intensity and clarity. Tenor Jesús Leon makes a strong Atlanta Opera debut as Romeo; his wonderfully bell-like tenor tones sound as invitingly clear on the final notes as they do at the opening.
Supporting roles, including a darkly brooding bass Burak Bilgili as Friar Laurence and a nice lyric turn by mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy in the trouser role of Stephano, are likewise flawlessly executed. With the Atlanta Opera, it’s a pretty safe bet that the chorus will sound fantastic, and they don’t fail to do so here, giving the opening “Two households” intro a fresh and dramatic feel that sets the stage for the tragedy to come.
All in all, as the company closes out 2015-16 and embarks on 2016-17, its largest and most ambitious season yet, there's a lot to praise here, and a lot for the Atlanta Opera to take pride in.