By Jim Harper
The timeless love of Romeo and Juliet defies family and social expectation and takes enormous risks.
St. Petersburg Opera Company opens its eighth season this weekend with 19th century French composer Charles Gounod's lush and moving treatment of their love story. Naturally the stage will include a major sword fight. But more important, the show offers some stunning examples of an opera composer's dramatic art.
Among the highlights are four duets between the title characters. In the first act, Romeo and Juliet sing mostly to, not with, each other. In the famous balcony scene of Act 2, the rhythmic interplay is similar, although in two short passages the budding lovers do share words and harmonious melodies. In the intimacy of Juliet's bedroom in Act 4, their shared singing dominates the scene and is more intricate. And in the climax of Act 5, when each realizes the depth of the other's sacrifice, their voices are so interwoven that they have become as one.
The opera also features a diverse cast: Juliet is played by dark-skinned Trinidad native Jeanine De Bique and there are three Hispanic principal singers: Juan Jose Ibarra (Count Capulet), Luis Gonzalez (Gregorio) and Alejandro Viera (Benvolio). Gilad Paz (Tybalt) is Israeli.
"Of course, none of these singers were cast because of their ethnicity, but because of their talents and skills," says board treasurer Nancy Preis.
More generally, this presentation of Romeo et Juliette reflects several goals of the company's artistic director, Mark Sforzini.
"For one thing," he says, "the music is beautiful."
But Sforzini also tries to supplement audience favorites with at least one opera per season that is "maybe not in the top 10 or 15 of usual box office draws but are nevertheless 'great works.' "
This year, Romeo and Juliet gives the company and its audience an opportunity to compare another telling of the story, Leonard Bernstein's popular Broadway musical, West Side Story, which will end the season with six performances next June and July. That, too, has emerged as part of the company's programming strategy: three operas and one musical per season.
Whatever St. Pete Opera's brain trust is thinking, it seems to be working. In a city that has seen previous opera ventures fizzle, the company is building on success — even in a market that already had two other established companies, the 55-year-old Sarasota Opera and Opera Tampa, now entering its 18th season at the Straz Center in Tampa.
In seven years, St. Petersburg Opera has more than quadrupled its budget and its major programming. It has grown from presenting four major evenings a season (two performances of two operas) to 17 (three performances of three operas, six performances of a musical, plus two holiday programs.)
In addition, the company presents less formal events to draw in audience. These include "Evenings With the Maestro," 90 minutes of preview performance and light-hearted discussion led by the affable Sforzini.
Perhaps most surprising, they've achieved all this during a harsh recession while staying in the black. "We've made many mistakes," says Preis. "But we've gotten a lot right. ... You do sweat bullets for every show."
After years of renting rehearsal and storage space, the opera moves this fall into its first permanent home — a recently purchased and renovated commercial building at 2145 First Ave. S. The new facility provides convenience and flexibility for set-building, rehearsals and even, not too far in the future, informal public performances and catering space.
The real measure of a company, of course, is its talent. Sforzini auditions new singers for every production.
"We're getting a lot better resumes than we were four years ago," says Preis. "We're getting people who are singing (often smaller roles) in the big houses."
This week's Juliet, soprano Jeanine De Bique, was a soloist last season with the New York and Munich philharmonics, had featured roles with the Royal Danish Opera and Basel Opera in Switzerland, and sang ensemble roles in four productions at the Vienna State Opera. Tenor Alex Richardson, who will sing Romeo, has had featured roles with the Boston Midsummer Opera and New York City Opera's VOX Series of New Music, and he covered the title role of Werther at the Washington National Opera.
Note: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction: The Sarasota Opera is 55 years old. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect age.