By Judith Malafronte, Opera News
PORTopera's Roméo et Juliette was a successful addition to this company's growing list of strongly cast, musically rich productions (seen July 24). Artistic director Dona D. Vaughn, who has a knack for getting convincing performances from age-appropriate singers, knows how to spotlight a story's plot and emotional line within a detailed and lively social fabric. Her direction of crowd scenes is the best in the business, and Gounod's take on Shakespeare would seem the perfect material, with its private love story played out in the public arena, where feuding families party and brawl with equal intensity.
Despite the restrictions of what is clearly not a big-budget situation, James E. Crochet's costumes were richly evocative of Renaissance Verona. However, director Vaughn was seriously hampered by the bare-bones set — a run of steps and a pair of open balconies that flanked the stage. (No designer was credited, although Anita Stewart was listed as "set consultant.") To this futuristic-medieval picture, which was recycled from PORTopera's 2006 Don Giovanni, was added a central freestanding tower with yet another balcony, whose curtained opening suggested a kiddie puppet theater. Red high-school-auditorium drapes and a gigantic unadorned cross lent Friar Laurence's cell a 1960s look, while too much empty space made it difficult to use shifting focal points or to pull intimate groups from the larger crowd for interesting stage pictures. Yet Vaughn drew fine emotional portraits from her singers and paced the five-act work (reduced here to two) skillfully.
Paul McGovern's chorus handled the French text deftly, as did the cast, which included several local singers boasting national reputations, including Sara Sturdivant as the harried nurse, Gertrude, and John McVeigh, a fine and temperamental Tybalt. Veteran Malcolm Smith's commanding declamation brought authority and dignified outrage to the role of the Duke.
Jordan Bisch, an impressive bass with an easy, smooth vocal production, looked youthful as Frère Laurent, but he suggested the character's gravity with deliberate, slow movements. In contrast, Jeffrey Wells paired a boorish characterization of Capulet with unrefined, labored singing. Michael Mayes was an arresting stage presence as Mercutio and needs but a little work to bring the same point and vividness to his singing. Lauren McNeese's technically and theatrically secure Stéphano was delightful.
Although they generated little physical chemistry, Jennifer Black and Gaston Rivero were well-paired vocally as the titular lovers, and both artists seem poised for major careers. Black's sweet, full-bodied sound soared thrillingly and she made easy work of the coloratura of "Je veux vivre." Rivero's acting is a work in progress, but he delivers the vocal goods with arching phrases, strong, exciting high notes and a full range of dynamics he is not afraid to use.
This year marked the company debut of Israel Gursky, a gifted young conductor whose quiet command drew lush, beautiful sounds from the pit. Tempos were brisk, and lines were shaped exquisitely; the climactic crowd scene, in which Mercutio and Tybalt are slain, was beautifully crafted by Gursky and Vaughn, with rousing, well-executed swordplay choreographed by Mark Bedell.