Romeo and Juliet (Opera)

Madison Leonard as Juliet and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Madison Leonard as Juliet and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Photo: Amanda Tipton
There is only one playwright whose theatrical work is also a mainstay of the opera and ballet repertoire, that being "Shake-speare." At least 10 of his plays have been adapted as operas, and two of his works—A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet—are staples in all three forms, a testament to their universality.

Capulets versus Montagues
Capulets versus Montagues
Photo: Amanda Tipton
In Central City Opera's opening production of its 91st season, the bard's most famous romantic tragedy is distilled to its essential dramatic elements (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré), focusing on the arc of Romeo and Juliet's shooting-star romance—a short-lived flame extinguished in a poisoned atmosphere of familial warfare.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
—Prologue, 1-6

Madison Leonard as Juliet and ensemble
Madison Leonard as Juliet and ensemble
Photo: Amanda Tipton
The economically trimmed storyline provides space for a number of poignant arias composed by Charles Gounod in 1867, including a whitty dig from Mercutio (Shea Owens, baritone), blaming Romeo's foreboding thoughts on Queen Mab (a fairy who, among her many attributes, has an influence on dreams). Juliet (Madison Leonard, soprano), too, references dreams—and the desire to live among her youthful visions—when she sings to her Nurse, Gertrude (Sarah Neal, Mezzo-Soprano), during the famous waltz. Leonard's magnificent voice and range fills the hall, her lovely coloratura resounding from the opera house's excellent acoustics.

Following the Capulet's party and some sweet, stolen kisses, Romeo (Ricardo Garcia, a passionate, lyrical tenor) sings a heartfelt serenede, wishing for Juliet to appear on her balcony. Their duet that follows encompasses choice phrases from some of the playwright's most famous lines, as the couple pledge their eternal love to each other.

Wei Wu as Frère Laurent, Madison Leonard as Julie, and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Wei Wu as Frère Laurent, Madison Leonard as Julie, and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Photo: Amanda Tipton
The next day, in secret, their vows are taken after a solemn blessing from Frère Laurent, sung by Wei Wu, bass—What a rich and stirring timbre!

Romeo's page, Stéfano (Sable Strout, a captivating mezzo-soprano in a trousers role) comes looking for his master, singing an impudent tune, which wakes the Capulet household, eventually leading to the deadly swordfight in which Tybalt (Kameron Alston, tenor) slays Mercutio and Romeo slays Tybalt.

Another exquisite duet is sung on the marriage bed, as the lovers, wishing never to part, are torn between their hope that it is the nightengale which sings to the darkness, while it is actually the lark heralding the dawn (before which Romeo must be gone, or face death for ignoring the Duke's order for his exile). The final, heartbreaking duet occurs in the tomb, made possible by a novel change in Shakespeare's story by the librettists—the upshot of which we'll leave for you to discover.

Madison Leonard as Julie and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Madison Leonard as Juliet and Ricardo Garcia as Romeo
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Against this backdrop of young lovers star-crossed by the hostilities between their families, Romeo and Julet provides an elegant reminder of the playwright's larger point that is generally lost in the personal tragedies of those closest to the action: The story is not only an argument against arranged marriages, it is also a feminist's portrait of Juliet's struggle to break free from her society's treatment of women, a theme we see throughout the Shakespearean canon.

John Baril, Musical Director, leads the 53-piece Festival Orchestra through a lovely rendition of Gounod's well-tempered score. The chorus adds terrific punctuation and atmospherics. Dan Wallace Miller's direction in tandem with Matthew S. Crane's set is both economical and strategic and, along with Robert Perdziola's lush period costumes bathed in Abigail Hoke-Brady's lighting, all make for a sublime spectacle.

Central City Opera's production of Romeo and Juliet runs through Saturday, August 5th, in repertory with Kiss Me, Kate and Othello. For tickets:

Historical and bibliographical context of the original play

Almost all of us grew up being taught that "William Shakspeare" wrote the Shakespearean canon, but just as the actual practice of scientific method and empirical reasoning leads to changes in the formulae for the natural sciences, so too in other fields does new evidence require a change in the operating model.

In the mid-eighteenth century, David Garrick, a producer, actor, and admirer of the Shakespearean canon, popularized the myth that a nominally literate (at best) and unscrupulous grain dealer and usurer (and here) from Stratford wrote the poems and plays based on the similarity of his name (Shaksper) to that of a pen name (Shake-speare) used by the actual author (a nobleman [Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford] for whom writing under his own name and sharing his work with his subjects was considered a faux pas, per Baldassare Castiglione's popular 16th century handbook, The Courtier, dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the titled classes. Later, Shaksper came to London and enjoyed some success as a grade B actor and script thief, as Ben Jonson notes in his poem "On Poet-Ape", as well as being mocked by Shake-speare (in the characters of Costard, Bottom, Christopher Sly, and Will). Garrick's venture was financially successful for him personally as well as for his theatre and his pet project, the Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-on-Avon.

But given the burden of proof that has grown exponentially in the past 275 years, those who operate by facts, rather than beliefs and opinions handed down as articles of faith, have found it necessary to analyze the canon through a lens that provides a much deeper understanding of the details embedded in the texts, including various court intrigues and historical events, expert insights into an array of disciplines (the law, falconry, horticulture and pharmacology, hawking and hunting, and courtly French, to name a few) and their specific vocabularies, as well as interpersonal dynamics between specific persons that are presented under the guise of fictional characters. All of this—the entire context of the Elizabethan Age—is lost upon Stratfordians, who see only the superficial plots and not the wealth of symbolism and references spread throughout the canon, not to mention the protocols of the class system at that time, so much different than today's mores.

In this vein, we offer a few selected examples from this story:

1. The love affair and clan warfare mirrors real life events for the playwright, Edward de Vere who, on suspicion that his wife was unfaithful (the subject of five plays), took up with one of the queen's young ladies-in-waiting (Anne Vavasor), with whom he was quite infatuated, much like a teenager. A pregnancy resulted (this is mentioned by Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), causing Elizabeth to put them both in the Tower of London. All this was followed by a series of street battles between the de Vere and Vavasor clans in 1582, the exact number of which and the death toll is literally repeated in the original play.1

2. Frère Laurent is an autobiographical memorialization of two of de Vere's tutors:

• Laurence Nowell, in cosmography (history, sociology, economics, geology, astronomy, liguistics, English, comparative literature, geography classics, and political science all in one). Nowell had access to the single most important Anglo-Saxon manuscript of all time. Sometime in 1563, when he was tutoring de Vere, Nowell signed his name in a volume of manuscripts containing the only known copy of Beowolf. Later, de Vere would use his knowledge of this text to change the ending of Hamlet, which follows the general story from the ancient Amleth manuscript (drawn from the same Scandanavian folklore as Beowolf), until Hamlet slays Claudius; then, the plot switches to Beowolf: it is Beowolf who fights the mortal duel with poison and swords; it is Beowulf who turns to his loyal comrade to recite a dying appeal to carry his name and cause forward; and it is Beowulf that ends with a royal succession brought on by an invading army.2

• Sir Thomas Smith, a practictioner of the new empirical Paracelsian medicine, who had a knack for brewing up potions, which aided in a particularly difficult recovery of de Vere's first wife, Anne Cecil. Later, the Earl and the Countess' personal doctor, George Baker, another Paracelsian, dedicated two books to the couple, followed by surgeon John Hester, who dedicated another classic tract in Paracelsian medicine to de Vere.

Paracelsian medicine, championed by de Vere, was the alternative medicine of its day and was frowned upon by those whose reputations and egos rested upon the established dogma, the second-century Galenic theory of medicine that saw the body as a balance of humors. De Vere raised the controversy in All's Well that Ends Well, with Helena extolling Paraselsian medicine, which, in turn, heals the King of France when Galenic medicine fails. Paracelsian chemical distillations, called "simples," are used by Romeo (and Laertes in Hamlet). Even Caius (de Vere met the real life Doctor Caius as a young man at Cambridge), the old Galenist in The Merry Wives of Windsor, keeps simples that he would not "for all the world" leave behind.3

1 These battles were later recaptured in Thomas Edwardes' Narcissus (1595), in which he references, in the context of discussing the epic poem Venus and Adonis, an unspecified nobleman, with a "bewitching pen," who "should have been of our rhyme/the only object and the star." Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 181.
2 Ibid, p.23.
3 Ibid, p.74.

Bob Bows

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