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Youthful pair debut in roles of Romeo and Juliet

Although Gounod's setting of Romeo and Juliet is faithful to Shakespeare's tragic tale of endless love, the music can be heavy going and the star-crossed teenagers are often played by veteran singers.

Opera Tampa went the realistic route in casting a youthful pair, soprano Rachel Watkins and tenor Vale Rideout, both of whom made their debuts in the principal roles Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The move paid off in an affecting, well-thought-out production under Anton Coppola, the venerable maestro whose long conducting career makes up for the tender ages of Watkins and Rideout. Director David Lefkowich kept the feuding between the Capulets and Montagues, including some fancy swordplay, flowing along smoothly.

Watkins is a tiny figure, and her voice is not large, but she was strikingly strong in Juliet's first-act coloratura aria. She brought a thrilling darkness and emotional texture to her little soliloquy after realizing who Romeo was at the masked ball. If the soprano seemed too careful at times, her technique and preparation were impeccable, with an especially well-focused and elegant lower and middle range.

Watkins acted the part superbly, bringing a persuasive sense of conviction to the headstrong heroine. Occasionally the clarity of French diction was sacrificed to beautiful sound, but that's what sopranos do.

Rideout was at his best in Romeo's glorious aria beneath Juliet's balcony. He has an attractive, ringing tone ideal for the ardent, eager-to-please swain, but more complex emotions - anger at the death of Mercutio, the mix of grief and love Romeo feels over Juliet's body in the tomb - lacked a certain weight.

There was plenty of chemistry between the couple in the sensual morning after the wedding night scene in Juliet's bedroom. Their death duet was gripping.

Kurt Link's Friar Laurence was a splendid presence in his blessing to Romeo and Juliet in the wedding ceremony. Malcolm MacKenzie had a terrific matey swagger in Mercutio's ballad to the fairy Queen Mab.

Melissa Parks was excellent in the character part of Gertrude. Victoria Atwater did a lively job acting as Romeo's page, but her mocking song that set off the duel scene seemed drab.

The Opera Tampa chorus and orchestra gave one of their best performances. The low-tech set from Virginia Opera and costumes from Utah Opera served the production well.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

If you go

Romeo et Juliette has a performance at 2 p.m. today at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $39.50-$89.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org.

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