Review: Roméo et Juliette at the State Opera

Shakespeare-inspired opera by Gounod is staged for the Bard's anniversary

Shakespeare is everywhere this year, and he hasn't been left out of Prague's opera schedule. A new staging of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette premiered at the State Opera on April 21 and 23, with the latter date being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616.

The story of Romeo and Juliet is well-known to almost everyone, which allows for a bit of artistic license with the staging. This new production places the action in an Art Deco hotel in Verona in the middle of the 20th century.

The concept behind the staging is that the Capulet family, which has ties to the criminal underworld, runs the hotel. The local Montague family looks down on them and would like to see them run out of town.

Of course, the plot of Shakespeare's most-beloved play takes the main characters in a different direction.

The set by Juraj Kuchárek is one of the more elaborate ones to appear recently on any of stages managed by the National Theatre. It functions as the hotel entry and lobby, and transforms into other hotel spaces fairly rapidly. It is a departure from the more minimalist sets that have been popular recently.

The costumes by Martin Kotúček also helped to re-create the Art Deco era, with some of the shadier characters in particularly gaudy suits.

Together they provide a solid platform for the production, adding a new layer to the familiar tale.

Director Sláva Daubnerová previously staged two short operas by Dimitri Shostakovich, Orango and Anti-Formalist Rayok, at the New Stage of the National Theatre. She shows some versatility here, as the previous works were in a modern and slap-dash style, and Roméo et Juliette is highly polished.

Composer Charles Gounod is mostly known for his Faust, with Roméo et Juliette generally regarded as not being on the same level. Gounod, however, did spend 30 years working on it, and it does rank among the better Shakespeare-inspired operas of the 19th century, along with Verdi's Otello.

Roméo et Juliette, with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, offers several opportunities for the principle singers to show their ranges and also gives the chorus a fair chance to sing and perform in the busy hotel lobby. This production also includes some choreography in a ballroom scene.

The elaborate set does have one drawback. It gets rather crowded in some scenes, and it becomes hard to keep track of who is on which side. The choreographed dance bits are also rather constricted and don't reach their full potential.

It works much better in the smaller scenes, when just a handful of the cast is present.

On the opening night, Jana Šrejma Kačírková played Juliette and Martin Šrejma played Romeo. They will be alternated by Kateřina Kněžíková and Aleš Briscein.

In 2012 Jana Šrejma Kačírková won a Thalia award for her portrayal of Juliette in a different production of the opera.

The five-act opera puts the leads together for four duets, which is a bit unusual as two duets are standard. The opening night cast managed to put the more difficult parts over the top. Aside from leads, Štěpánka Pučálková scored well in the trouser role of Stéphano.

There was just one awkward pause as one singer waited for applause that was a bit late in coming, and by the time it did come the orchestra had already gone on to the next movement.

Despite the occasional traffic jam on stage, the production is overall a good addition to the many Shakespeare-related events going on this year. The familiar story and elegant music are both accessible to people who don't count themselves as opera buffs, and the staging also can appeal to a wide audience that is a bit wary of something too conceptual and modern.

The opera has a long history on Prague stages, with the first performance in 1869 just two years after its premiere in Paris. Since then it has been in both Czech and German translations.

The current production is in the original French with English and Czech surtitles.

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