Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Gounod, known to the world mostly for his ubiquitous setting of the Ave Maria in conjunction with Johann Sebastian Bach, was primarily an opera composer. Faust is still mounted fairly regularly, Mireille occasionally, with Romeo and Juliet getting a few more performances than the latter. I was surprised to be reminded that both St Petersburg Opera (45 miles) and Tampa Opera (65 miles) have played this opera within the past ten years. French opera is my passion, but this one is uneven, gorgeous in its arias and duets for the lovers, less so for most of the other important characters, and pedestrian in its ensembles and climaxes. In the hands of a solid ensemble cast and a conductor sensitive to French stylistic niceties, it can play well.
Hanna Brammer got off to a great start with Juliet's Waltz in act one, leading the audience to hope for a top notch assumption. Key moments in later acts proved a stretch, lacking finesse. Still, there were many moments of pleasure. Andrew Surrena as Romeo began sounding not warmed up for his short solo of act one, but it turned out he was seriously under the weather. His act two aria had some nice moments (there is a reason it appears in tenor recitals from time to time as it shows the voice off nicely), and the duet that followed, the balcony scene in Shakespeare, was a high point of the evening. His act three was noticeably a strain, so it was not a complete surprise when the company executive director stepped on stage before the last two acts to announce that Ganson Salmon would be assuming the role. Mr. Salmon proved to be a talent not up to what might be expected from this company in a principal role, but I did hear things in his singing that suggested that he might have a future career path. Honestly, he deserves kudos for just getting through this inopportune moment as well as he did. Sarasota Opera, like most medium-size regional companies, does not keep an entire cover cast at the ready.
Of the secondary principals, Yvonne Trobe as Stephano, Romeo's page easily stole the honors with her insouciant page's aria, of which there are many in French opera (Les Huguenots, Mignon. She pretty much stopped the show for a few moments. Ricardo Lugo as Friar Laurent also got strong approval from the audience with his resonant bass and the gravitas in his stage bearing. Matthew Hanscom was unable to make much of his Queen Mab aria, although this is not a distinguished moment in Gounod as it is in many other versions. Samuel Schlievert was a fine Tybalt, and Adelmo Guidarelli properly presided over the Capulet clan.
The chorus sang lustily but again without variety during most of the big climaxes, although they sang a fine prologue, which in this version introduces us the the warring factions.
Anthony Barrese presided over a full throttle performance, more Italianate than delicate French. In this opera some subtlety can go a long way toward making Gounod's lesser moments seem better than they are. His orchestra didn't play badly, but hardly with the zest and grace exhibited in La Boheme for Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi.
Stage direction by Martha Collins was badly stand and sing, the worst excesses of opera non-acting. When singing to the moon in his second act aria, Surrena as Romeo planted his feet firmly and faced the audience, when standing sideways and cheating his head to the audience would have at least given the impression of his knowing what he was singing about. In ensembles, Ms. Collins moved whatever grouping had the lead front and center, never a feeling of oneness.
Costumes, coordinated by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, scenic designs by Peter Dean Beck, and lighting by Ken Yunker were the only elements up to company expectations.
This Romeo and Juliet is part of a community-wide salute to this fabled story. Last fall, a greatly reduced version by (mostly) third year Asolo Conservatory students toured all over Florida, introducing students to the magic of Shakespeare. Sarasota Ballet will dance Frederick Ashton's version to Prokofiev's score and second-year conservatory students will perform the entire play at Selby Gardens in April.
Even though this performance was less than hoped for, I expect others to rise to higher levels. Still to come are L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) and La Wally.
Romeo and Juliet runs through March 20, 2020, at Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information call 941-366-8450 or visit www.sarasotaopera.org.