The best adaptations of Romeo and Juliet—West Side Story, Romeo Must Die, that episode of Hey Arnold—remind you how annoying it can be to watch your friends fall in love. “My voice was silent, but my soul called to you!” is one of the lines Romeo uses on Juliet, and it works. These are teenagers, after all. The Dismemberment Plan has a song, “Ellen and Ben,” about a similarly doomed romance told from the perspective of their irritated mutual friend, that includes this particularly poetic assessment: “Every time I tried asking them something / they started making out all again / I thought it was rude…”
Such is the case in Wolf Trap Opera’s new staging of Charles Gounod’s opera. Director Louisa Muller updates Gounod’s 19th century French adaptation of Shakespeare’s 16th century play with some staging and costume choices from Urban Outfitters circa 2015: faux hawks, selfie sticks, a MacBook DJ. But true to opera convention, it’s loyal to the libretto, which is loyal to the play, taking many of its lines verbatim. You’re in for some interminably sappy exchanges about the nature of larks and nightingales, with one notable exception: the ending, which Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré deemed insufficiently tragic and modified to make room for one last duet.
Gounod’s better innovations, particularly the waltz “Je veux vivre,” are apparent thanks to a well balanced Wolf Trap Orchestra conducted by Eric Melear, who keeps things light, in the French comic opera tradition that Gounod was both inspired by and tried to escape. Yet this isn’t his best opera—that’s Faust—and it’s hampered by his adherence to his source material and Gounod’s own peculiar composition decisions. There are a few moments when a bunch of tenors or baritones all sing at once. Duets and cavatinas, rather than arias, make up the bulk of Roméo et Juliette, but this works in its favor, giving it an appropriately theatrical rhythm that keeps the action going. There’s even a lengthy sword fight (here, knife fight) that WTO does a remarkably good job choreographing. WTO’s singers can not only sing, they can act, and do physical feats while projecting to the rafters. Not all pros can do that. It’s more evidence of the consistently high degree of talent that this young artist program cultivates.
Madison Leonard, as Juliette, anchors the cast with her bright and fluttery soprano that easily fills the Barns theater. That it wasn’t supposed to be her role—the whole cast had to be reshuffled after two singers dropped out earlier this year—is all the more impressive. Tenor Alexander McKissick, playing Roméo, is tinny at first, but demonstrates good range and nuance in the upper bounds of his register. Mezzo Annie Rosen is memorable in the trouser role of Roméo’s bratty page, TPing the Capulet’s house. The opera’s one standout aria is Mercutio‘s “Ballad of Queen Mab,” which the grinning, boisterous baritone Thomas Glass delivers as a comic palate cleanser. Underutilized are Taylor Raven as Juliette’s servant Gertrude, Joshua Conyers as Papa Capulet, and especially powerful baritone Patrick Guetti as Paris, Juliette’s betrothed, all minor roles in this streamlined adaptation.
But for Gounod, these are secondary concerns. His opera strips down all relationships external to the titular one to focus on the two lovesick love birds. It can be sweet at times and suffocating at others, such as in the crypt scene, the culmination of their harebrained plot involving a temporary death potion (here, it’s cocktail of prescription painkillers). It’s tragic, yes, but also more than a little ridiculous. As D-Plan’s perplexed narrator observed, “They made each other feel like they could die but / they couldn’t stay the slightest of friends.”
To July 21 at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna. $36–$92. (703) 255-1900. wolftrap.org.