Review: Glorious 19th century opera and operetta

What: “Romeo and Juliet”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Mar. 19
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The year 2016 has found countless cultural institutions around the globe honoring the same thing: the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s contribution to “Shakespeare 400” is a lavish and exciting production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

The Bard’s most endearing love story is embroidered by the French composer with touching and tender melodies as well as a muscular musical approach to the dreaded rivalry between the two houses of the ill-fated teen lovers, the Capulets and the Montagues. Lyric’s “Romeo and Juliet” has expansive, dark sets, beautiful costumes, and some sparkling singing.

One of the biggest reasons to make a journey to the Civic Opera House is to hear the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Romeo. He’s handsome and dashing, he’s romantic and magnetic, and he sings up a storm. Here is a voice that delivers love arias the way they were meant to be: with gripping drama, passionate persuasiveness, and stunning musicality.

Soprano Susanna Phillips’s Juliet is not always as convincing, as she has her ragged and halting moments. Yet she’s a great actress, a lovely woman, and a singer who when she delivers, she delivers well. The pair has enough chemistry to draw tears (I shed a few) and their final farewell is one of those things that make opera something special.

Lyric has assembled a worthy collection of supporting singers. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn excels as Friar Laurence, the do-gooder who, owning to a miscalculation, becomes an inadvertent do-badder. He is pious as well as understanding and sings with avuncular authority. His horror, when he learns that the fake death plan has failed, is clear and heartbreaking.

In her Lyric debut, French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa is a stylishly strutting Stephano, while Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins’s Mercutio is more than a mere sidekick to Romeo. There is a steely side to Deborah Nansteel’s Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse, which is endearing, and Jason Sladen’s Tybalt has just the right amount of testosterone-fueled masculinity.

David Govertsen invests the Duke of Verona with proper indignation and Takaoki Onishi presents a Count Paris who is both loving and tragic. Anthony Clark Evans as Gregorio and Mingjie Lei as Benvolio also offer good work.
The only true disappointment is Philip Horst as Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet. The night I attended (eight days ago), he was consistently out of sync with the orchestra.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, a stupendous group, rises to this occasion to honor Shakespeare by offering stunning choral singing of the highest order. Similarly, the orchestra glitters from the pit, under the steady baton of Emmanuel Villaume, who drew music both glimmering and boisterous from his players.

Director Bartlett Sher executes a brilliant sword scene — he highlights how it begins small and escalates into tragedy by having the fight begin with baguettes and brooms. He’s not fully comfortable with huge forces: when the stage is stuffed with the people some of the action looks forced and artificial.

The costumes are gorgeous, and the sets are sturdy and dark, all perfect for a love story that turns into a death story.

This “Romeo and Juliet” is both familiar and new, and is well worth your time.

*****

The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, a Hyde Park institution for the past 56 years, returned last week with yet another operetta given loving treatment with spiffing results. Their “Princess Ida” — at Mandel Hall for three performances over the weekend — was a smashing success. This organization knows how to offer 19th century wit with a contemporary gleam and sensibility.

Director Shane Valenzi, along with scenic designer Victoria Granacki and costume designer Shawn Quinlan, created a visual treat. The backdrop was a huge open book (the story of “Princess Ida”) and the production had the light and airy feel of a fairy tale. (At times perhaps a little too Disney inflected, with one character in a dress reminiscent of Disney’s Snow White and another with hair molded into Minnie Mouse ears.)

This otherworldly setting softened some of the clunky “war of the sexes” text while perfectly meshing with Sullivan’s magnificent music. The costumes were particularly excellent, transporting you into a kind and gentle place where arguments, if not always witty, were at least quite funny, and no one took the kind of offense that leads to lawsuits, loss of jobs, or Twitter outrages.

Over the last several years this company has attracted many young singers just embarking or on the brink of professional careers, meaning that the talent is well above what you would expect from an amateur troop. The acting quality has similarly increased. The solid and entertaining work by the principals was equally matched by wacky and wonderful work by the chorus.

It has also been a pleasure to observe the consistent improvement of University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra. Music director Matthew Sheppard drew out vibrant sound with a sheen of humor in the overture and then proceeded to lead his ensemble in a well-paced performance offering solid and engaging support for the singers.

The result was marvelous, and the evening sped by with laugh after laugh, great song followed by great song. These are folks who know their Gilbert and Sullivan and do it proud.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company has admirably served as a cultural bridge between town and gown, bringing university students, alumni, staff and faculty together with community members in an enterprise of joy. Their success comes in part from a long history of loyalty from its supporters. Bob Green, a member of the “Ida” chorus, has appeared with the company in every main stage production since 1963— may he long continue! David Bevington, a university professor and one of the world’s most respected experts on Shakespeare, has long played viola in the pit and this year has offered a marvelous essay in the program as well as serving as dramaturg. Many people behind the scenes, too numerous to mention, have an extended and devoted connection to the company. The audience, too, is full of stalwarts. For example Barbara Flynn Currie, the majority leader in the Illinois House of Representatives who looked glorious in glittering green on opening night, is a regular and has a special connection because her late husband, the legal scholar David Currie, was long associated with the company.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s production, the amusing “Iolanthe.”