REVIEW — ‘A Triumph of vision’: Organizers, performers pull off ambitious venture with skill and flair

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerRomeo (North Carolina Dance Theatre dancer Frederick (Pete) Leo Walker II) and Tybalt (NCDT dancer Naseeb Culpepper) partake in a swordfight after Tybalt killed Mercutio during Saturday’s inter-arts performance of The Romeo & Juliet Project in the Amphitheater.

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

Romeo (North Carolina Dance Theatre dancer Frederick (Pete) Leo Walker II) and Tybalt (NCDT dancer Naseeb Culpepper) partake in a swordfight after Tybalt killed Mercutio during Saturday’s inter-arts performance of The Romeo & Juliet Project in the Amphitheater.

Guest review by David Shengold

Saturday night a capacity crowd filled an Amphitheater brimming with anticipation for one of the summer’s key artistic events: an original inter-arts collaboration among Chautauqua’s major performing arts organizations exploring and presenting a brand-new composite version of Romeo and Juliet, conceived and directed with flair and skill by the Chautauqua Theater Company’s Vivienne Benesch. Despite some rain, busy performance schedules all around and the challenges of rehearsing and coordinating in such a busy venue a project involving 150 artists in the pit and onstage, the evening proved a triumph of vision and organization.  The other Institutional artistic entities involved were the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Dance program and North Carolina Dance Theatre, Chautauqua Opera Company, the Chautauqua School of Music and — materializing up near the United Nations flag for a sexy entr’acte of Duke Ellington’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” with Scott Hartman the persuasive trombone soloist — a jazz ensemble from the Music School Festival Orchestra. Where else but Chautauqua could such a feat have been attempted, let alone brought off? Even The Juilliard School (to which many of the artists involved have ties) has neither the institutional structure nor an appropriate venue for preparing and presenting such an ambitious, large-scale venture.

Benesch has stated of Shakespeare’s 1595 play, “I don’t think any other piece of theater has inspired so much creativity in other artists.” One might also note that few other pieces of theater are so universally encountered in high school and popular culture, at least in anglophone cultures, making R&J a superb choice but also raising the question — in wake of the collaboration’s impressive success — of what could possibly follow it as the basis for the next such endeavors. Neither Julius Caesar nor the feared “Scottish play” — also educational staples — yield an equivalent bounty; epic subjects like the House of Atreus and the Dido and Aeneas story come close, but are hardly staples even of college curricula any more. We must stay tuned with interest.

In this initial installment, the organizers — principally David Paul and Benesch as co-curators, Timothy Muffitt as conductor, Don St. Pierre and (again) Paul as music adaptors and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Mark Diamond as choreographers — had a bounty of top-notch classical works inspired by the play to interweave and excerpt with acted passages and leaven with pop and jazz treatments. Principal among them were Gounod’s ravishing-scored opera Roméo et Juliette (1867) and Prokofiev’s stunning ballet of 1935. Berlioz’ “dramatic symphony” — which has vocal soloists but, curiously, only narrators and a Friar Laurence, no Romeo and Juliet — and Tchaikovsky’s Gounod-besotted Overture of 1869 (massively familiar from use in movies) lent some choral and orchestral passages. Bernstein’s 1950s updating West Side Story, also a near-universally known musical text, also figured prominently.

I feared in advance that the transitions among the different idioms might jar, but by and large they were very well considered. At several junctures speeches and dialogue from the play was superimposed over the music. Always a risky proposition, this technique — melodrama, in its originary 19th century sense — proved highly effective, which speaks volumes for the amount of preparation and judgment the production team and speaking performers must have taken with the timing. Whittling down the texts must also have taken much consideration. I missed Berlioz’ sublime orchestral Love Scene and Bernstein’s fantastic dances (though The Reflections’ trippy 1964 “Just Like Romeo & Juliet” made a droll substitute, energetically offered with drop-dead rip-away skirts by Tracy Christensen); I wondered if Romeo’s exquisite Tomb Scene from I Capuleti ed I Montecchi (1830) might not (with its female Romeo) have introduced another implied perspective on Forbidden Love. But the selections heard were very apt, and offered with consistent articulation and polish by the valiant CSO under Muffitt. One sometimes felt that Benesch slightly privileged the spoken parts: some verbose might-have-been-funny-back-then jokes could have been pared with no lack felt. But pacing rarely flagged.

The show looked terrific, with Lee Savage’s set basically black surface and red chairs, with movable white bench/bed/bier units and a background cloth atmospherically lit by Scott Bolman. Christensen kept the fine chorus in black, the various principals in color-coded relatively contemporary wear. Miking worked quite well except when — inevitably in such a context — it suddenly didn’t.

Three couples, identically dressed (Juliet in a yellow dress, tresses banded back; Romeo in sneakers, blue pants and a light blue T-shirt), led the cast, interacting tellingly. Benesch’s CTC yielded actors Arielle Goldman, and Brian Smolin. North Carolina Dance Theatre supplied Anna Gerberich and Pete Walker (an offstage couple who began dating at Chautauqua).  Representing the School of Music, soprano Rachel Sterrenberg and tenor Yujoong Kim. All three pairs looked good. Almost inevitably, the “dancing” Romeo and Juliet proved the most eloquent, offering the three principal Prokofiev pas de deux (as rendered by Bonnefoux) with athleticism and tensile strength overlaid with a seeming spontaneity that evoked youthful passion and despair.

Goldman’s every word was admirably clear; her take-charge Juliet was hardly the “soft” creature she protested herself to be. Her readings gave us fierce intelligence and will, but stinted somewhat on the underlying meter. Smolin at first tended to clip syllables but grew into a poetic Romeo alert to the sudden contrasts in his speech. Chris Corporandy’s furious Tybalt tended to rant (as Tybalts will) and forget that Juliet’s cousin is a nobleman, not just a street tough. The most engaging of the other actors, Peter Francis James (Capulet) and Rebecca Guy (Nurse) found admirable ways of combining contemporary cadences with the inherent music and wide emotional range of their lines.

Sterrenberg’s soprano is (mercifully) not the tweety-bird coloratura sometimes wrongly deployed in Juliette’s part because of the famous waltz song; her wide-ranged, occasionally steely soprano formed kind of a parallel to Goldman’s bold approach. This suited best the dramatic “Potion aria,” once usually cut from this consistently underrated score — but Sterrenberg managed some nice runes elsewhere. What she didn’t supply were both arias’ necessary trills. Kim handled with grace the hard task of starting his part with the high-lying “O nuit divine” and quickly dispelled some passing flatness; he has virtually an ideal voice for the French repertory and sang beautifully, seeming a major find. Julian Arsenault, a bit rushed by Muffitt, also sang beautifully in Mercutio’s “Mab” song, though greater dynamic variety aids its middle section.

The Gounod leading duo — plus baritone Kurt Kanazawa capably handling Tybalt and Bernardo — did very solid double duty as West Side Story’s Maria and Tony, with the opera company’s Clayton Brown (Riff) and Meaghan Deiter (Anita) both managing to create a palpable sense of character within a very few minutes. Surely the program should have credited lyricist Stephen Sondheim along with composer Leonard Bernstein for the two brilliant West Side Story selections with verbal texts, the musically multi-layered “Tonight” ensemble (which brought a deserved roar from the crowd) and the performance’s concluding number, the anthemic “Somewhere.” This beautiful number was created on Broadway by Reri Grist, a future international opera star. Here, sung largely a capella, “Somewhere” sounded healing and gorgeous in the throat of Raquel Gonzalez, whose soprano boasts a lovely timbre with rich overtones, finely expressive enunciation and admirably secure pitch. Joined by the youthful combined choruses of the School of Music and Chautauqua Opera Young Artists, Gonzalez brought the exciting evening to a dreamy, hopeful close — though Dire Straits’ post-punk hit “Romeo and Juliet” from 1980’s Making Movies made a droll choice for the happy crowd processing out of the Institution’s unique community space, newly re-dedicated by this project’s exciting outcome.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold writes for Opera News, Opera (UK), Playbill and Time Out New York among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO, Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass, and has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams colleges.