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Young Love and Lovers

[whitespace] Romeo and Juliette Balcony Seat: Juliette (Barbara Divis) soaks up the vows of love of Roméo (Robert McPherson).

Pat Kirk Photography

Opera San José mounts a lush and zesty version of Gounód's 'Roméo and Juliette'

By Michael J. Vaughn

JUST TO GET the blasphemies out right away--I've never really liked Romeo and Juliet. I can name about 20 of Shakespeare's plays that I like better, and if I really wanted to listen to a couple of teenagers blather on about love and death, I'd rent Titanic.

That said, the star-crossed lovers got pretty decent treatment from Charles-Francois Gounod, who dodged the grand-opera excesses of his day when he equipped his 1867 Roméo et Juliette with intimate proportions and a subtly melodic score. Meanwhile, his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, cut the Bard's verbiage to opera level while leaving the main story pleasurably intact.

Romeo and Juliet themselves get pretty good treatment, too, from Opera San José, whose most recent band of resident artists has turned into an impressively lyric troupe, well-suited to Gounod's music. The all-important principals, soprano Barbara Divis and tenor Robert McPherson, sing this stuff like they were born to it.

If last season's Lucia di Lammermoor weren't proof enough, this Juliette removes any doubt about Divis' remarkable range and agility. One minute she's tossing out poofy florist-shop cadenzas in the sprightly Act I waltz, "Je veux vivre" (the one you've heard on those Miller beer commercials), the next she's unfurling streams of triple-f agony at the news of Romeo's poisoning. And her top notes are downright captivating.

As for McPherson, his singing is as touching as ever (particularly his farewell aria to the poisoned Juliette in Act V), but his overattention to French diction sometimes makes his tone nasal and covered. (Singing tends to neutralize natural accents; that's why the Beatles sounded American when they sang, and that's why the least- accented singer in San Francisco Opera's recent A Streetcar Named Desire was a native of New Orleans, soprano Elizabeth Futral.)

Even Shakespearean ingenues can get a little dull sometimes, so it's good that Opera San José has some strong fringe players. The best is baritone Brian Leerhuber, who attacks Mercutio with boundless zeal and scads of testosterone, notably in the Act 1 ballade "Mab, reine des mensonges." I'd sure like to see him play Don Giovanni in January.

Almost as zesty was mezzo Layna Chianakas, in the jesting trouser role of Romeo's servant, Stephano (the Act 2 chanson "Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle"), and Christopher Dickerson added to the buffet with his chocolate mousse of a bass as the priest, Frére Laurent.

David Rohrbaugh and orchestra provided silky-smooth accompaniment, especially in the lush string phrases complementing Juliette's monotone stirrings in the Act 4 fake poisoning, and the brass's somber funeral march immediately following. Joe Ragey showed great versatility in mixing and matching seven different sets, reaching his peak with the gorgeous white canopy cascading over the lovers' bed in Act 4.

Opera San José made an understandable cut of the lavish Act 4 wedding scene (Gounod's sole bow to grand opera), but I'm not sure why they did away with two small pieces by Frére Laurent: an Act 3 ode to medicinal herbs and an Act 5 exchange revealing Roméo's ignorance of Juliette's fake poisoning. Both would have provided some useful illumination.

Roméo et Juliette plays Nov. 27-28, Dec. 1, 3-5 at 8pm and Nov. 29 and Dec. 6 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $32-$50. (408/437-4450)

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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