Shakespeare’s Juliet, that most verbally agile of thirteen-year-old lovers, opens 3.2 with a gorgeous epithalamion anticipating Romeo’s arrival. Unaware that her husband has just been banished for killing her cousin, she calls for darkness to hide their “amorous rites”: “Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night, / That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo / Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.” Juliet dreams that night’s curtain will cast a shadow dark enough to free the newlyweds from society’s relentless gaze. This desire for private space in the midst of an all-pervasive public sphere is beautifully foregrounded in the Lyric’s production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Of course a nineteenth-century opera—especially one driven by the spectacles of its ball scenes and duels—is hardly suited for representing private space. Art, and this art form in particular, would rather embrace the happy dagger than go “untalked of and unseen.” Director Bartlett Sher plays with this opposition, staging a tragic contest between intimacy and social surveillance that can only end in the privacy of the tomb.
Gounod’s opera begins with the chorus’s prologue, a variation on the sonnet that opens Shakespeare’s play and that sets out the friction between Capulets and Montagues. Sher brings the chorus on while the house lights are still up. They slowly take seats on straight-backed chairs facing the audience, nearly at the level of the main-stage spectators. Their observation is unsettling. The towering wigs and finery of Catherine Zuber’s eighteenth-century costumes add to the sense of being stared down by the social elite (a not entirely uncommon feeling when attending the opera). The result is a clever and pointed setup of Roméo et Juliette’s claustrophobic community.
The production’s set (designer Michael Yeargan) depicts an Italian piazza outside the Capulets’ stone mansion, complete with requisite balcony. Filled to capacity for the party scene, the piazza highlights the crowded publicity of its fictional world. Nothing should go “untalked of or unseen” here, where the watchers and the watched trade places constantly (a fact nicely emphasized by the commedia dell’arte characters who first entertain and then observe the partygoers). Throughout the first half, the set feels primarily representational—realistic stage dressing rather than meaningful space. But Sher and Yeargan undo that assumption after the intermission.
The second half of Act 3 begins exuberantly with Marianne Crebassa in the “breeches” role of Stephano. Her gleeful performance of the charming “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” reenergizes the production just in time for the renewed sense of urgency brought on by Mercutio’s duel. His and Tybalt’s deaths in the piazza—staged as a public marketplace—figuratively and literally clear the stage for the lovers’ melancholy wedding night. The clutter of the market, with its dead bodies and spoiled wares, is replaced by a white sheet thrown over the raised platform center stage. This undulating white square glows in the darkened piazza, surrounded by the now-gloomy grey mansion. It’s a theatrically effective and poignant staging decision. What was the dance floor in Act 1 becomes Juliet’s chamber and her marriage bed. The sheeted platform is still part of the public arena, open on all sides, even as it demarcates a softer, romantic space apart. The lovers’ proximity and the tactile fabric increase the intimacy of their duet (“Nuit d’hyménée”), but the space is still too big for them. The white sheet is a poor replacement for night’s “curtain”; visually arresting, it nevertheless leaves the lovers exposed and vulnerable.
Of course, exposure and visibility are inherent components of Gounod’s lush, highly populated opera. Sher’s staging takes every advantage of this opportunity while simultaneously framing the relentless exposure of the lovers as central to their tragedy. There is no corner in which they can hide from the chorus or our own spectatorship. For me, the most moving moment of the production was when Juliet (Susanna Phillips) wraps herself in a fold of the sheet after Romeo (Joseph Calleja) departs, curling up in the middle of her large, lonely “bed.” Later, despairing in the face of her father’s pressure to marry Count Paris, she pulls more and more of the sheet around her until it trails behind her like a wedding dress and covers her like a shroud. Here, her earlier declaration that “my grave is like to be my wedding bed” is materialized in a stage metaphor; even the balconied mansion, with its gray arches and columns dimly lit, takes on a sepulchral atmosphere.
Ultimately the grave proves to be the only private place available to the lovers. While in the play Juliet revives only to find Romeo already dead, Gounod and his librettists revise the ending to allow the lovers a final duet. With the platform that was their marriage bed transformed to a crypt, and surrounded by sheeted tombs, the pair sings their finale (“Viens! fuyons au bout du monde!”) before succumbing to poison and dagger. Perhaps most surprisingly to an audience familiar with Shakespeare’s play, no reconciliation between the families occurs; the opera ends with the lovers’ final musical apology to God for their suicide. (Susan Halpern’s program notes helpfully put into context the religiosity of the finale.) Although the production’s use of the chorus is one of its strongest elements, the chorus isn’t missed at the conclusion. Its absence is the relief the lovers have been looking for.
Katie Blankenau is a doctoral student in English literature at Northwestern University. She specializes in early modern drama and theater history, with a particular interest in hospitality and privacy on the early modern stage. She received her MA from Southern Methodist University, her BA in English and a BS in journalism
from the University of Kansas.