In one of many dramatic moments in St. Petersburg Opera's production of Romeo and Juliet, the young woman at center stage stands almost catatonic while her clueless father prepares to marry her off to a man she does not love.
Her powerlessness — and the feminist outrage it may induce in the audience — is an example of both the timeless nature and contemporary relevance of the story. Love that defies family expectation and social convention can easily be punished. And yet, as these two young lovers proclaim in unified song on the edge of death, their affectionate devotion will endure beyond the grave.
Tragic, yes. But uplifting too. St. Petersburg Opera's staging at the Palladium Theater, which continues this afternoon and Tuesday evening, is a spine-tingling, goose bump-inducing, teary-eyed success.
Artistic director and conductor Mark Sforzini has assembled another fine cast of singers at the start of their promising careers, married it to a musical accompaniment that provides supple support to the drama, and produced a whole that conveys this ancient morality tale into a vivid experience.
On opening night Friday, two especially fine standouts were tenor Alex Richardson as Romeo, whose liquid vocal phrasings were a pleasure to the ear, and baritone Gabriel Preisser as his pal Mercutio, whose mischievous instigations provide some of the best acting of the show. Soprano Jeanine De Bique, as Juliet, seemed to need a bit of time to adjust to the sonic balances of the cast and lively acoustics of the hall. In the beginning, some of her phrases sounded unfocussed and forced. But then she settled into a satisfying and compelling rendition of her character, which combined both innocence and resolve.
Bass Nathan Whitson brought a powerful voice and stentorian presence to his portrayal of Frere Laurent, who aids and abets the young lovers. The rich bass voice of Juan Jose Ibarra was similarly clear in his portrayal of Count Capulet, the wealthy man whose love of a good time and family pride prevent him from seeing what's really going on around him. Tenor Gilad Paz was suitably prickly as Tybalt, the count's nephew and hot-headed enforcer.
The company wisely invested its staging money in local set and lighting designs, which were well suited to the space, instead of in costume design, which as stock rentals from Chicago were serviceable but nothing special.
A friend in the audience wryly remarked on one of the tradeoffs one accepts in opera. Thinking perhaps of Franco Zeffirelli's steamy 1968 film of Shakespeare's play, she said she prefers her Romeo and Juliet to be teenagers "with lots of skin!"
Well, there was one moment in Juliet's bedroom that was as real as it gets. Juliet has been begging her new husband to ignore the signs of daybreak and remain entwined with her in bed. Then she suddenly gets up and agrees that he must go. The surprised look of frustrated interruptus that appeared on Romeo's face was so classic that audience members chuckled all around me.
Not in the stage directions, perhaps. But true nonetheless.