Romeo & Juliet at the San Francisco Opera

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When I heard that Romeo & Juliet was performing at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and then were offered press tickets to attend, how could I refuse? It had been awhile since we stepped foot in the Opera House and it’s always such a joy being n the building, from the architecture and overly decadent ceilings to the performance itself.  The hall is adorned with stunning murals by Frank Brangwyn portraying the four elements — Air, Earth, Fire and Water — in their service to the welfare of mankind.

Kicking off in early September, the San Francisco Opera inaugurated its 97th season (amazing, right?) with Charles Gounod’s romantic Romeo & Juliet as well as two season-opening benefit events: Opera Ball 2019: The Capulets’ Masked Ball and BRAVO! CLUB’s Opening Night Gala, the latter of which we didn’t experience.

The Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet is a French operatic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic love story. This performance returned after a 32-year absence, under the baton of French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel. So, who were Romeo & Juliet for this beautiful fall performance in the City-by-the-Bay? Romeo (tenor) was performed by Pene Pati and Juliet (soprano) was performed by Nadine Sierra. 

Romeo & Juliet

A Dramatic Romeo sings his heart out on the main stage, played by Pene Pati. Credit: San Francisco Opera.

The production was sung in French with English titles and the language was as formal (and delicate) as you’ll remember from Shakespeare productions. I always love (and resonate most) with the overly dramatic scenes, especially when there’s dancing. Act 1 started with a formal ball in celebration of Juliet’s Birthday in the Palace of the Capulets. Her father Count Capulet, has promised her Count Paris as such ancient stories go when the daughter is married off to someone of their parent’s choosing, which is often counter to who the bride would choose if she would have had a choice. It is in this very scene that Romeo first declares his love to Juliet.

Romeo & Juliet

Celebrating Juliet’s Birthday at the Palace of the Capulets. Credit: San Francisco Opera.

If you don’t know the story of course, you don’t realize at this pivotal moment that Juliet’s family (the Capulets) and Romeo’s family (the Montagues) have been quarreling for years, hence Romeo attended the ball incognito and in disguise, together with his friend Mercutio. Of course, we then hear and see their own horror of discovering that they belong to two families which have been separated by an ancient and hate-filled feud. Let’s just say that EGO has taken front seat between the families for years and the quarrel wasn’t about to end anytime soon.

Driven by their passion and commitment to each other, they seek out Friar Lawrence and ask him to marry them in silence and secret. (below)

Friar Lawrence blesses the Union of Romeo & Juliet, despite knowing about the feud between both families. Credit: San Francisco Opera.

Angst returns when the two families’ clans meet and begin to fight. Mercutio (played by Baritone Lucas Meachem — the New York Times refers to him as an “earnest appealing baritone”) is mortally wounded which drives Romeo (below) to attack Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin who is played by Daniel Montenegro), resulting in Tybalt’s death. Romeo says out loud after his friend Mercutio dies: “Let Anger Rule my Heart!”  He continues: “Death is the other choice, then I will call upon death.”

At this point, a dramatic scene shakes up the audience as the Duke of Verona arrives, scolding both families and sends Romeo into exile away from Verona, which for the Duke, was a kind gesture over death itself. The Duke proclaims: “More blood? Will nothing every quiet the fury in your hearts?”

Romeo & Juliet

Battling it out on stage: Tybolt (left) and Romeo (right). Credit: San Francisco Opera.

O Day of Sorry, Day of Tears sings both families acknowledging that Blind Range Has Bloodied our Swords. All tremor in terror. Romeo sings a powerful song here, “In blood and tears, I see my hopes and vows die.” Day of horror, day of woe, both families are lost in sorrow all repeat.

“In blood and tears, I see my hopes & vows die.”  

Alas, with the drama bubbling and the situation now seriously awry, the young couple join each other for a final night. So in love and in support of Romeo, Juliet dismisses the killing of her cousin Tybolt and forgives him. Ahhh yes…this scene was my favorite part of the opera.

The drama heightens here. Alas, the song of the lark announces the dawn. Before, during and immediately after this scene, the words to each other were ever so heart provoking. They share their love using powerful romantic language — so dramatic….so Shakespeare. “Destiny binds me to you forever with each of your fiery kisses, heaven is radiant in me.”

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet. Left: Nadine Sierra plays Juliet (soprano) and Pene Pati plays Romeo (tenor). Credit: San Francisco Opera.

Romeo however panics as dawn comes but Juliet assures him that the song he heard was sung by a Nightingale instead of a Lark, the Gaurdian of Love. Night candles….a soft reflection of the stars. “Stay!” she pleads to him. “Cruel Destiny,” they both exclaim.

“More Cruel than Death is the Fate that Separates Us.”

After Romeo leaves, Juliet turns to her angels in heaven and entrusts Romeo to them. Her father then announces that she must marry another per the wish of Tybolt and this wish will be carried through to honor him, even in his death. Says her father: “The will of the dead, like that of God, is a divine and supreme law.” Devastated, Juliet reaches out to her angels once more. She sings: “Farewell my Soul. Farewell my Life.”

Given the chance to take a potion which will make it appear as if she is dead for a day or so, she agrees. She ponders the decision first, but is convinced that not moving forward is a cowardly act, one without faith. She says, “to hesitate is to doubt, to tremble is to lose faith.” Then, the Dawn of the Darkness of course rises.

Romeo & Juliet

Credit: San Francisco Opera.

Romeo naturally finds Juliet and weeps over her saying to his beloved: “the adorned beauty of your face seems to smile at eternity.” Knowing that of both families, neither tears or prayers will move them, he no longer wishes to live with his Juliet gone. The tragedy of Romeo & Juliet’s curse if you like is what has drawn thousands to this Shakespeare production for centuries. Not realizing she isn’t dead, he drinks his own poison, adding “Listen Juliet, O’ the Lark Answers the Day” before he dies. Discovering there’s no return to the life she desired (spending the rest of her days with her adorned Romeo), she stabs herself and they die together.

“The adorned beauty of your face seems to smile at eternity.” — Romeo to Juliet thinking her dead!

Beautifully done, the opera brought back memories to the first time I saw the production in London so many years ago. Interestingly enough, I had forgotten how many references to God, the will and right of God and of course the Law of God was interwoven throughout the performance. As the lovers die in each other’s arms, they both implore God’s Forgiveness.

Additional Useful Information

Note that Tenor Pene Pati, who was originally slated to serve as a cover artist and only scheduled to perform Romeo on October 1, 2019, replaced Bryan Hymel in the lead role. Composer Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet marks the American directorial debut of Jean-Louis Grinda — and a return for Grinda to the production he previously directed in Genoa in 2012, with Andrea Bocelli starring as Romeo. The contrasting colors of blues and yellows and greens and reds were meant to highlight the divisions in Renaissance-era Verona. To counterbalance the costumes of the era, Grinda opted for ‘simplicity and elegance’ on his set.

San Francisco’s first Romeo & Juliet starred Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli and American soprano Queena Mario, who also performed together in Rigoletto during the same season. Tickets were priced from $26 to $398. Each presentation of Romeo & Juliet (except for the September 6 performance) featured a 25-minute Pre-Opera talk by Alexandra Amati, Professor and Director of the Music Program at the University of San Francisco.

For more information on the San Francisco Opera including other upcoming performances and how to order tickets, visit their website.

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