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THE STAR-CROSSED LOVERS SING -- IN FRENCH

October 14, 2007

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    October 14, 2007
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    Opera Carolina News

THE STAR-CROSSED LOVERS SING -- IN FRENCH

Don't you love the way Shakespeare uses words? Just think of Romeo's goodbye in the balcony scene:
"De cet adieu si douce est la tristesse/ Que je voudrais te dire adieu jusqu' à demain!"

That's the way "Parting is such sweet sorrow ..." emerges from his lips in "Romeo et Juliette," Charles Gounod's transformation of Shakespeare into French opera. When it comes to operatic romance, this must set a record: The star-crossed sweethearts sing four love duets.

Opera Carolina opens its season with "Romeo," beginning Thursday. To discover how a British play became a Parisian opera, turn to page 3E.

Charles Gounod ushered the Bard into the opera house with his `Romeo et Juliette,' which opens Opera Carolina's season. Here's how Gounod did it:

A nervy guy

Appropriating great literature never intimidated Gounod. Before he turned to "Romeo and Juliet" in the 1860s, he used Germany's most revered literary work for his "Faust." The result: an opera that has been beloved ever since. In the most magical scene of "Faust," the title character and the innocent Marguerite are swept away by young love -- captured musically by suave tunes and a sumptuous orchestra. "Romeo et Juliette" let Gounod spread that aura across a whole opera.

The language of love

Shakespeare wrote for London audiences; Gounod aimed for Parisians. So Gounod's Romeo woos Juliet in French. For those of us who grew up with Shakespeare, the idea may take some getting used to. But if one wants to be a stickler about it, Romeo and Juliet should really speak Italian, since that's the language of Verona. At least Paris is closer to there than London is.

Distant relatives

Elizabethan theater and 19th-century French opera may be separated by miles and centuries, but they have similarities. Isn't an opera aria akin to a Shakespearean soliloquy? And when it comes to confrontations and swordfights -- as crucial to "Romeo and Juliet" as romance -- there's nothing like a thundering orchestra to ratchet up the theatrics.

Streamlining

To convert Shakespeare into opera, Gounod and his wordsmiths pared down the cast of characters, plot and verbiage to their essentials. The spotlight never strays far from Romeo and Juliet. The heart of their romance is a chain of four duets, and when the lovers' emotions grip them, their music veers from tenderness to jitters to flights of passion as quickly as an adolescent's mood swings. Yet Opera Carolina's James Meena, who will conduct, invokes a word that rarely applies to operatic love stories -- "understated" -- when he discusses the balcony scene. "It's so delicate. ... If people are really listening, they'll be drawn into it," he says. "It's my favorite scene in the opera."

Spirit of the times

In Shakespeare, Romeo dies before Juliet wakes up from the potion that makes her appear dead. Her loneliness as she kills herself heightens the tragedy. But 19th-century opera wasn't ready to be that stark, Meena said. So Gounod lets Romeo hang on longer after taking the poison. Juliet's awakening makes him forget for a moment what he has done, and they celebrate their reunion -- until he falters. Only after he reveals he drank poison does she stab herself. "Oh infinite, supreme joy of dying with you!" she sings. As their voices blend once more, they expire together.

Morality

When Gounod was young, he considered going into the priesthood. Even when he strayed from his wife for a time and moved in with a woman in London, she was mainly a nursemaid to him. During his British sojourn, he cranked out religious music that Victorian audiences loved. Lest Romeo and Juliet's behavior scandalize such people, he puts the lovers in front of Friar Laurence to swear marriage vows, complete with matching proclamations of "I do." As they die, they suddenly remember that suicide is a sin. Their last words are "Lord, forgive us!" But their voices' final surge exudes passion -- not remorse.

A big sing

That's opera-world lingo for a role that demands power and stamina. It applies to both title roles here. As characters, Romeo and Juliet may be young, but their music demands mature voices. Their love pours out in one reach-for-the-stars melody after another. Orchestral surges magnify the emotions but can compete with the voices. When singers rehearse "Romeo," Meena says, their work is as much about pacing their voices as honing their acting. Where do they rein themselves in? Where do they let go?

In Charlotte

Opera Carolina's Romeo will be Gaston Rivero, a native of Uruguay who recently was a prize winner in the Concurso Caballe, a Spanish singing competition named for opera legend Montserrat Caballe. For a sneak preview of Rivero, go to YouTube.com and search for "Gaston Rivero Romeo"; he sings Romeo's aria in a 2005 British Broadcasting Corp. contest. Rivero will woo the Juliet of Sari Gruber, who has performed with orchestras and opera companies across the U.S.

Growing up fast

Juliet may be a bigger role today than Gounod intended. He began by writing Juliet a powerful aria in which she meditates on the potion that imitates death. But the soprano who sang the world premiere lobbied him for something sparklier, so he replaced it with a bubbly entrance aria -- the opera's best-known number. In recent years, the trend among sopranos and director is to include both arias. Yes, that tests sopranos' stamina. But it gives the character more of an evolution. "She begins as a young girl," Meena says, "and turns into a very strong woman." PREVIEW

Romeo et Juliette

Charles Gounod's version of the love story opens Opera Carolina's season. Performances are in French with supertitles in English.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. next Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $15-$95.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.