Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A thrilling and feverish Roméo et Juliette at Opera Hong Kong

Since 2006, Opera Hong Kong have collaborated with Le French May Arts Festival, one of Asia's largest and most popular arts events, to produce fully staged works for local audiences. For this year's festival, it's the second time Charles-François Gounod's Roméo et Juliette has been presented (the first being in 2007). In this new production, acclaimed French director and designer Arnaud Bernard has delivered an altogether beautifully tender, feverish and thoughtfully delineated piece of thrilling operatic theatre.

Act IV's wedding scene in which Juliette is forced in marriage to Paris
In Gounod's 1867 version of Shakespeare's story of doomed love, a series of duets and pensive arias clearly bring the focus on the lovers but the turbulent background of two families long at odds with each other is spliced with swathes of tension.

Bernard's choices bring fervency and momentum to this five-act work and allows Gounod's music to appear both completely integrated with the onstage events and its descriptive potential fully realised. Serving the music, conductor Benjamin Pionnier captured the dramatic shifts splendidly with well-honed knowhow. The Fujian Symphony Orchestra played with exacting confidence and pit and stage remained respectful friends throughout the opera's five acts.

Bernard never holds back on the tensions between the opposing Capulets and Montagues. Even before the overture gets underway, the suspense of chase and violence is mounted with exhilarating energy. Combat, whether with swords, knives or open-hand is choreographed with incredible power by Pavel Jancik, and bloodied clothes and faces of the gang-like mass are a constant reminder of consequences past and present.

The entire concept, in fact, is created by Bernard's remarkable jack-of-all-trades adeptness as set, costume and lighting designer. This Roméo et Juliette has a sense of being set in a darkened monumental corner of a modern urban ghetto in which a striking visual clash of time adds to the brooding tension. Hoodies, jeans and military-styled streetwear give contemporary unpretentious directness and the washed-out palette of blacks, whites and greys never confuses who belongs where.

 Vannina Santoni as Juliette and Sébastien Guèze as Roméo
Dramatically variable lighting bathes and cuts a series of vertical grey rendered walls looming up into the fly, the only embellishment a large pedimented Renaissance window. The configuration alters for each act and multiple access points facilitate quick and easy access for the more than 80 cast and chorus members. Bernard knows the ins and outs of crowd movement and is blessed by an exceptional cast who make the leaps, rolls and tumbles about the stage with effortless realism.

The events of each act are precisely timed, sharpening the realism of the impending tragedy, from Act I's "Verona, Oct 4, 21:34" to Act V's "Capulet Tomb, November 16, 3:43". In Act IV's "Juliette's Bedroom, November 15, 6:47" the stage is set aglow with a spread of candlelight and, as if sealing fate, the nuptial bed resembles the plinth of a tomb.

And how the two lovers are portrayed with poignant youthful impetuousness and conviction! As Roméo and Juliette, Sébastien Guèze and Vannina Santoni take love along an increasingly mature and expressive journey. The pairing is striking, their passion burning and their voices blend with effortless liquidity. Early, when Roméo shares a beer with Juliette it's an unexpected comical yet appropriately casual moment. They continue to connect with the audience refreshingly.

Juliette is no demure shrinking violet in the grasp of Santoni. At first mildly tomboyish, Juliette is as much a part of her Capulet gang and possesses as much fighting spirit as any of them. Watching her settle in love with yearning womanly passion brought home the veracity of her immediate and uncensored attraction for Roméo. Santoni's pure and radiant soprano increasingly bloomed with affecting strength as if to trace her transition. There is great amplitude in the voice, dynamic ease across register shifts and careful jaunts across purring ornamented lines, all the while carrying the emotional integrity of the text. Despite occasional untimely aspirations, here was an unblemished performance.

Sébastien Guèze as Roméo
As Roméo, Guèze similarly grows up on stage in the six weeks the drama is played out. As an almost naive adolescent partaking in errant brawling, Guèze's Roméo seems loosely guided by his peers. After meeting his new-found love, Guèze gradually transforms with resolved manliness, duly characterised by a resonating and richly virile tenor. In the middle and lower voice Guèze's power and shape shine marvellously. The higher range of voice thins out in reaching the top notes but Guèze nonetheless delivers charismatic flexibility.

Guillaume Andrieux, with his perfectly suited rich and volatile baritone, is alight as a hot-headed alpha-male Mercutio. As Juliette's father, Guy Bonfiglio held authority with his robust stony lower bass despite some loss of projection in the upper reaches. Gong Dong Jian shows understated compassion and is impressive in bass sturdiness as Frère Laurent. As Tybalt, Haô Ting displays pent-up aggression combined with agility in body and voice. Other supporting cast give meaty performances with Dominique Chan as a wholesome-voiced Gertrude, Samantha Chong as a chipper Stephano, Sammy Chien as Paris and Apollo Wong as the blustery-voiced and staunch duke. And the Opera Hong Kong Chorus climbed to a new level of refinement with strong and unified support.

Here, in one of the far-from-operatic centres of the world, this Roméo and Juliette is testament to the world-class calibre of performance and staging that Opera Hong Kong offers.

Production Photos: Opera Hong Kong

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