Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most popular love story of all time. The reasons for that were visibly present when the Minnesota Opera presented the tale of star-crossed lovers at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. The 1,900 seat theater was sold out, forcing some theatergoers to stand at the back of the balcony to view the performance.
The Minnesota Opera will next present Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus, at the Ordway from March 1-9. For information and tickets ($50-$150), see mnopera.org.
But this wasn’t Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—this was the opera written in 1867 by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, with music by Charles-François Gounod. Operatic conventions of the day required alterations to Shakespeare’s plot. The first four acts of the play, providing background for the feud between the Montague and Capulet houses, were removed in an attempt to keep the audience from being bored. Instead, the opera begins with a lavish ball introducing the ill-fated pair—played, in this production, by talented rising stars James Valenti and Ellie Dehn.
While this choice successfully captures the audiences’ attention, it fails to engage the audience with the families’ quarrel and diminishes the source of the duo’s doomed nature. Romeo’s parents are noticeably absent from the opera and Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, is hardly seen. The character of Stephano is highlighted as Romeo’s aide. The name doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because the young page Stephano, comedically-played and well-sung by Adriana Zabala, is a result of 19th century French taste and is not included in Shakespeare’s play.
One other noticeable difference between Shakespeare’s famous work and the opera based on it is in the couple’s death scene. Shakespeare’s play offers a painfully ironic moment as Juliet awakens to find her lover already dead. In the opera, Romeo begins to feel the affect of the deathly poison just as Juliet wakens from her slumber. This plot choice was an effort to appease the 19th century Catholic audience who needed to hear the lovers ask forgiveness for their sins. Today, this choice arguably offers the audience further resolution as the duo perform one final time together, but also a greater sense of tragedy to the lovers’ deaths.
Although the opera has many noticeable differences from Shakespeare’s famous play, many scenes are still to be found, including the lark/nightingale scene, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, and the iconic balcony scene. While the talented leads do justice to the most famous scene from the play, the balcony itself did not live up to what one might expect and the quartet of dancers surrounding Romeo were distracting and unnecessary.
The opera’s sets, imitating Verona architecture, disappointingly lacked character and substance, and the digital imagery projected on them, such as flames and cascading clouds, undermined the audiences’ ability to connect to the performers. However, the beautiful costumes—designed by Jennifer Caprio—and talented supporting players made up for any set design gaffes. This may not have been Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but as evidenced by the opera’s ability to stand the test of time and by the audiences’ resounding applause, that didn’t have any effect on the well-known story’s ability to resonate.
Rebecca Mitchell (email@example.com) is a graduate of the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. She lives in Uptown Minneapolis and is currently working in public relations.