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For a small opera company like Maryland Lyric Opera, doing a semi-staged opera could be seen as a fundraising inducement. (If you like this, imagine how much better it could be if we had the money for sets and costumes!) But for MDLO, the concert opera format is an artistic decision, not a budgetary one. Indeed, the orchestra that accompanies its current production of Roméo et Juliette jacks up the per-show cost significantly above that of other small local companies that tend to splurge on costumes and props but make do with a chamber ensemble.

The reason, according to them at least, is a company mission to “prioritize support for the singers’ vocal artistry first and foremost over all other production values (including stage direction, musical direction, [and] acting).” I’m not sure I totally buy that. Every opera company says that vocal artistry comes first, even the ones that have the resources to put on the set-heavy Bohèmes and Aidas. But MDLO is a new company, just in its second season. And if it’s going to distinguish itself from the rest, vocal talent is a good bet, because their singers have it in spades.

Roméo et Juliette’s cast is nevertheless made up of newcomers and unfamiliar names. (The production has a rotating cast, and the one reviewed here returns on Sunday.) There’s some unevenness between tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali’s Romeo and soprano Meredith Marano’s Juliette: Marano has dramatic vocal weight with a high register and a gift for coloratura—which is to say, loud and showy—which contrasts with Williams-Ali’s more laid back, sometimes bashful delivery. But both are individually excellent, Marano especially in Act 1’s “Je veux vivre” and Williams-Ali in Act 5’s crypt scenes. Another standout is Thomas Gunther as Mercutio, who does a great “Ballad of Queen Mab.” Unfortunately, big solo moments are rare here, as the opera mostly consists of duets and eschews expansive arias for simple cavatinas (short songs).

Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera is a French Romantic take on Shakespeare’s classic of 9thgrade English class, just in case you’re confused as to why you’re hearing Italian characters created by a Brit singing in French. It isn’t Gounod’s best or most famous opera—that would be Faust. But it’s still pretty good, one that hews close to its source (the libretto takes lines directly from the play) so we have unnecessarily long meditations on the behavior of larks vs. nightingales, and there aren’t any plot surprises. Or so you think! Gounod throws a change-up at the end, although it’s still plenty tragic. I figure if you’re going to take liberties with famous works of literature, you might as well give us a happy ending or more sex and violence or something (the swordfights between Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo are laughably unconvincing, a casualty of MDLO’s deprioritization of those “other production values”).

At times, Gounod’s adaptation doesn’t work so well: There are too many characters, so there are ensemble numbers with three tenors singing all at once, which gets confusing. And some of the smaller roles, like Paris and Count Capulet, get relatively few lines. (The former is played by a great Gregory Voinier, the latter by Guido Lebron with a resonant, rich baritone.) But Gounod’s music, played nicely by the orchestra, is pleasingly melodic. There’s a waltz in Act 1 that interrupts the rest of the opera’s 4/4. The opera’s strength, however, rests on its duets, which give it a more fast-paced, theatrical feel in comparison to more aria-heavy operas.

It’s a familiar story beautifully sung, if not fully staged. Still, it begs the question: If you’re going to do something without costumes or sets, why Roméo et Juliette? If you’re committed to singing over theatrics, why pick such a theatrical opera, one based on the only play pretty much everyone remembers from high school? Whatever the reasoning, it works. Perhaps the familiarity is what makes it appealing to a small company and leads MDLO to presume audiences can just soak up the vocals and let their imaginations fill in the rest.

The production repeats Friday, July 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 26 at 3 p.m. at University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. $35 – $100. In French with English surtitles.

Photo by Dhanesh Mahtani