Arts Listings

Berkeley Opera Presents ‘Romeo and Juliet’

By Jaime Robles, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2007

The opera opens with all the characters placing themselves, one by one, facing out toward the audience on an open stage set with stylized arches, stairs and doorways portraying Renaissance Verona. The music swells tempestuously as the cast recites the prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity …” At verse’s end, the cast sweeps from the stage and the action starts. 

So begins Berkeley Opera’s English-version production of Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, another of the company’s inventive remodelings, which interweaves very different cultural sensibilities into a postmodern mix that’s both engaging and fun, if not always smoothly polished. 

The major challenge the opera’s creative team faced in recreating this grand opera was more complex than the usual one of blending diverse cultural perspectives: it’s one buried deep in the musicality of the language used by Shakespeare, as opposed to the music of the French opera derived from it some 250 years later.  

Shakespeare’s language, the sine qua non of English poetic language, depends on a quick continuous presentation of a long line that is densely packed with sounds and intellectual wordplay. (Lynn Collins’ interpretation of Portia’s courtroom speech in the film version of The Merchant of Venice is a startling and revelatory example of how to speak cogent Shakespeare.) Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, is especially full of puns and long drawn-out metaphors that reference the 16th century. And its musicality is self-contained.  

The music of the 18th century composer Gounod is French to its sixteenth notes: tender, at times ecstatic, given to a lushness filled with delicacy but backed with intellectual precision. It is a music meant as a setting for French lyrics, with their own emphases and an abundance of vowel sounds, linguistic characteristics that create a very different understanding of what defines poetry as well as what defines musical accenting and embellishment. 

As a partial solution to the impossible task of setting Shakespeare’s iambs to Gounod’s music, Jonathan Khuner, artistic director and conductor, decided to drop the opera’s lengthy recitatives. He comments on the validity of this decision: “[Gounod] would have preferred to compose Romeo and Juliet in the operá-comique style, with spoken sections leading to sung numbers in regular alternation… [In our production] material has been shuffled, reassigned and rearranged, but always with a view towards highlighting Gounod’s best Shakespearean responses and his often transcendent music.” 

A condensed version of Shakespeare’s text was used for the spoken text and a mélange of Shakespearean text and translations of the original Barbier and Carré libretto was concocted for the songs. Some of the translations were less than happy. Why Juliet’s “Je veux vivre” (“I want to live”) was translated as “I want to fall”—especially since it was sung while standing on a balcony—is a mystery. For the most part, though, the song libretti worked well—they were concise and sweetly formed. 

Reverting to Gounod’s original idea, while it allowed for Shakespeare’s text and greater accessibility, stirred up other problems. One was the discontinuity of the music. This production would be better served with more music, if only as background, even though that requires more intensive work in the musical reduction and despite the fact that each reworking runs the risk of moving farther away from Gounod’s original. Taking risks is one of the Berkeley Opera’s more endearing and admirable traits. 

The lovely soprano Elena Krell as Juliet was vocally well-matched to tenor Jimmy Kansau’s enthusiastic interpretation of the hormonally overwhelmed Romeo. Baritone Igor Vieira was a bawdy and humorous Mercutio, and the cast as a whole gave excellent portrayals. Maestro Khuner kept his 25-member onstage orchestra in admirable form, and the chorus work was delectable.  

A final tsk-tsk. Whoever designed the codpieces, which are distracting, needs to see the Vivienne Westwood exhibition at the de Young museum. Westwood, who with Malcolm McLaren fashioned the Punk movement, has always designed in-your-face sexually challenging but innately artistic outfits. Corsets, bum cages, see-through lace kilts. But no outsized codpieces. As she comments: the designs, which emphasize the body from foot to toe, finally focus on the face, which is ultimately the body’s most erotic part. Despite the bawdiness that decorates the Shakespeare’s text, eroticism is the true virtue of Romeo and Juliet’s love-soaked soul. All in all, though, this was an adventurous and thoroughly enjoyable performance for both theater and opera lovers. It’s one you should plan on seeing. 



Presented by Berkeley Opera at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 9; 8 p.m. Friday, May 11; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 13 at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley. (925) 798-1300.