Anachronistic Costume Design Mars Lyric’s Otherwise Fine ROMEO & JULIET
Reviewed by: James Murray
I must admit I was excited to see that Broadway director Bartlett Sher was brought in to the Lyric to take the reins of Gounod’s classic opera and Shakespearian tragedy Romeo & Juliet. Mr. Sher, whose 2008 stellar revival of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific brought him well deserved and tremendous acclaim, was nothing short of brilliant while remaining true to the original production’s concept. I have great admiration for Mr. Sher and feel that he is one of the finest Directors around.
It is easy to see the difference between an opera stage Director and a musical theatre one from the moment Romeo & Juliet begins. The curtain rises and the overture begins while the houselights are still up. Slowly an enormous chorus enters the stage to take their seats in chairs that have been placed all over. It is a highly theatrical and marvelous effect to remind us this is a piece of theatre.
Mr. Sher also excels at keeping the singers moving constantly except during their arias where they remain still, on the edge of the stage or leaning against a proscenium arch. He has also, together with Set Designer Michael Yeargan, created a literal street in Verona with 3-story buildings, a piazza in the center and a roman column on the side. When you see the set you realize that this is going to be an extravagant production which is true the story and era. Well, almost.
I am not sure what the costume designer Catherine Zuber and Mr. Sher were thinking when they decided to place the action in the 16th century Renaissance yet have the characters dressed in everything from fashion of the 1750’s to costumes that look straight out of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables which takes place in the 1840s. Women sport tricorn hats and elaborate eighteenth century gowns while Juliet is in some pink creation that looks like it came off of Marie Antoinette. It looks as if the Costume Designer raided the costume vaults of the Lyric and pulled pieces from Der Rosenkavalier. This detail may not seem very important to most people. For me I never knew what era we were supposed to be in which took me out of the action of the story.
Romeo, sung magnificently well by tenor Joseph Calleja, sported a scraggily beard which made him look in his forties and a leather overcoat that belonged to Officer Javier in Les Miserables. Instead of making him appear young, handsome and dashing they aged him giving him the look of a middle-aged man. (Romeo is supposed to be 19). The Lyric’s priority is the voice in which they could not have chosen a better Romeo. However playing this loosely with actual events in history shows a lack of respect for the audience as if we are too naive to know anachronisms in their design choices. It is the details that make world class opera.
Juliet, sung by Susanna Phillips, seemed to strain on opening night with the high notes which came out shrill and off key at times. Aside from this she sang and acted the role extremely well and possesses a strong chemistry with her Romeo. In fact it is the chemistry, acting and vocal abilities of these two that make the production great.
Christian Van Horn makes a fine Friar Lawrence with a rich bass and Jason Slayden’s Tybalt is exceptionally well sung (although I wish they could find a different wig for him as he looks like Timur out of Turandot).
There are no weak links in this cast and the huge chorus does an exceptional job. When they all sing at full volume the sound soars and fills the huge auditorium. Chorus Master Michael Black deserves kudos for his work.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume sets just the right tempos and nuances to provide a lush, rich sound. The Lyric unquestionably has one of the finest orchestras in the country if not the world.
If the creative team could decide in which era to set Romeo & Juliet and stay true to it the Lyric’s production would be first rate. All of the other elements are present. I say trust in the work and don’t try to impose some “concept” on in that will only confuse or mar these fine works.