Arts & Culture

“Romeo et Juliette” a French opera about a Shakespearean play set in Renaissance Italy

Two opera singers are about to die on Tacoma’s Theatre on the Square stage. To a sepulchral brass quartet, tenor Christopher Bengochea launches into a passionate aria: Romeo entering Juliet’s “tomb” and finding her apparently dead. He’s sweating, expanding his arms as his voice soars. On a chair next to the first violin section, soprano Ksenia Popova sits calmly reading her score. Just as she’s about to sing Juliet awakening from her potion-sleep, the music comes to a halt.

“We need more harp there,” calls conductor Keith Clark. “It should be two harps, really. And brass — somehow, without two extra trombones and horns, you need to make it sound like death.”

It’s the sitzprobe for Tacoma Opera’s “Roméo et Juliette” by Charles Gounod, opening Friday (April 10) at the Pantages Theater. A sitzprobe is an unstaged rehearsal, the first time the singers and orchestra rehearse together. Despite this, the tension and drama of the romantic French composer’s music is tangible, woven by Gounod’s superb tone painting and by the singers’ commitment to their characters. Because, it seems, it doesn’t really matter that this is a 19th-century French retelling of Shakespeare set in Renaissance Italy by an American company. What’s eternal, say both singers and director, is the age-old story of first love.

“It’s a relatable story in every way,” says Popova during a rehearsal break. A young singer who wowed Tacoma Opera audiences as Josephine in “H.M.S. Pinafore” last fall with her rich, brilliant voice, this is her first-ever Juliette. “Everyone’s had that first love. You’ll always remember it, even if it turns out to be the wrong one.”

Of course, things don’t turn out too well for Romeo and Juliet. There have been many musical settings of this tale, from Berlioz’ opera to Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fantasy, from Prokofiev’s ballet to Nino Rota’s score for the classic Zeffirelli film and Bernstein’s musical “West Side Story.” Gounod, better known for his opera “Faust” and his vocal setting of “Ave Maria,” sticks tightly to Shakespeare’s script, giving the hero and heroine plenty of passionate duets together right up until their deaths, when he even fudges the original plot by allowing Juliet to wake up from her potion-induced sleep before Romeo has had a chance to die from his suicidal stab wound. They sing of eternal life together as the orchestra shimmers its way into a heavenly major chord.

“Romeo and Juliet” isn’t just a relatable story — it’s a captivating one, demanding of both singers and musicians.

“The biggest challenge is not to let your emotion get into your singing,” says Bengochea, who sang Romeo a few years ago and is now making his Tacoma Opera debut. “It’s a love and death that can kill you, can choke you up and make you unable to sing for the rest of the show. The orchestra alone is so beautiful.”

In fact, the orchestral score is unusually complex for an opera. Even slightly reduced in size (as the Tacoma Opera orchestra has to be to fit in the Pantages pit), it echoes the story at every moment: a warm string blanket for the bedroom scene, tumultuous as Juliet’s nurse warns Romeo to leave, pompously calm for Juliet’s father Capulet, a dramatic timpani roll as Juliet begs her father not to make her marry her cousin Paris, an eerie ascending diminished chord in the woodwinds for the rarely-sung but intricately beautiful “potion aria.”

“This is an orchestral opera, no question,” says conductor Keith Clark. “It’s more like preparing an orchestral concert than a lot of other operas … but it’s gorgeous, so audience-friendly.”

Even the staging is determined by the strength of the story. Noel Koran, artistic director of the company, is directing this opera himself, and after thinking about a few other time periods has settled on Shakespeare’s original: 14th-century Verona, the Italian city where “Juliet’s balcony” is now a tourist attraction.

“That’s what everyone expects,” he explains of the Renaissance costuming and set, which will expand for the larger street scenes and contract for smaller interiors. “I’m trying to do the story justice — to just tell the story.”

As Act V winds onto its bitter end in rehearsal, Popova crumples to her knees, singing her own stabbing suicide to a solo cello’s lament. Together, she and Bengochea, also kneeling, beg God’s forgiveness as staccato flutes carry them up to heaven.

“It’s about the love between two young kids, and how life is eternal with each other,” the tenor sums up. “The arc of the music describes (this) … it’s continuous youth. It’s happy even up until the end.”

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