Ten Year Anniversary
Virgina Opera: Romeo and Juliet


Reviews 2

Pianist Bryce Cuthriell Gives Recital in Smithfield
Sundays at Four, Christ Episcopal Church, Smithfield
January 17, 2016
Review by Mary Cole

Sunday, as the snow came falling, disappointed audience members canceled their coming. Seventeen year old pianist Bryce Cuthriell began his recital on time with a surprisingly good attendance with more than 60 in the audience at historic Christ Episcopal Church in Smithfield.

Bryce, a very focused young pianist, began his program with Tchaikovsky’s Dumka, Op. 59, based on a Russian folk ballad. The music expresses sudden changes that range from melancholy to exuberance. His understanding of the piece was evident by his masterful control and contrast of dynamics and tempi.

The lovely Steinway recently obtained by the Isle of Wight Arts League is the perfect instrument for this acoustically fine church chamber. Ravel’s “Ondine,” with its fluid runs, glissandos, and other technical challenges descriptive of water, was played with outstanding sensitivity. Shimmering figurations become the background for transparent melodic strands played very softly with great expression. The fluid background pauses only once for a brief pianissimo that precedes the final quicksilver cadenza.

For contrast, Bryce selected the Debussy Etude No. 10, considered the emotional peak of the etudes and essential for an aspiring Debussy player, with it's contrasting registers, textures and modes of attack. This piece looks forward to a much later generation of composers.

The Romantic period was given the stage in Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. A work familiar to many in the audience from television and movies, the piece opens with a gentle harmonic ambiguity. The theme is elaborated, becomes restless and more complex until the turbulent display at the ending of four feverish chords.

After intermission he played a single work, Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 57 known as the Appassionata. The opening offers a dark and enigmatic theme, only to abruptly explode with what has been called “shrieks of rage.” The piece unfolds with volatile start and stop rhythms that create a sense of conflict and urgency. Then there is a brief lyrical section of great yearning. Bryce finished his recital demonstrating the extremes of technique and the fullness of sound required by the composer. Definitely not a timid player, he reached into his depths to bring out the composer’s intentions. It was the final piece by Beethoven that brought the audience to its feet for the longest standing ovation this concert series has seen in its eight-year history.

This young artist has the potential to become a fine professional pianist. He is a young man of many talents, excelling in math and science, which often is found to be the case with outstanding musicians. Smithfield is fortunate to have such a young talent.

Virginia Opera: Romeo and Juliet
Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, February 5, 2016
Review by M.D. Ridge

The February 5th opening night of Virginia Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet was marked with passionate singing, gorgeous melodies, sumptuous costumes and peculiar directorial choices.

Conductor James Meena launched Virginia Symphony players into the portentous overture, with its declarative bass and percussion, while the spoiler-alert Prologue showed the star-crossed lovers on their joint catafalque, and the Duke of Verona silently orders Count Capulet to make peace with his Montague counterpart.

At the Capulets’ masked ball, the count’s daughter Juliet is led blindfolded down the stairs to be introduced. Soprano Marie-Eve Munger gives her an initial shyness that blossoms into delight; truly she’s the belle of the ball, in a lovely, sparkly dress to match her voice. (It had been announced that she was recovering from bronchitis, but she sang like an angel.) She sings “Je veux vivre” with youthful high spirits, enchanting the party-crasher Romeo—tenor Jonathan Boyd—who’s dumbstruck by her beauty. Tenor Kyle Tomlin gives macho life to the hotheaded Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who recognizes Romeo as one of the hated Montagues and chases after him.

There’s a long, deadly wait for Act II, while the impressive but cumbersome set is changed, with many squeaks, rumbles and bumps. This happens before every act, with every set change. Apparently production designers Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan, who’s also the director, couldn’t think of anything to move things along more smoothly. The music between acts is lovely but nothing happens. This is an opera, not an audio broadcast. There’s dance music—and no dancing. In a French opera? The effect is incredibly clunky.

The balcony scene is enchanting, of course. Moonlight, love duets beautifully sung—what’s not to love?

In Act III, after another long, clunky set change, Juliet’s nurse Gertrude, cheerfully sung by mezzo Susan Nicely, brings the young lovers to Frère Laurent, well played and sung by bass Kevin Langan. There’s humor here—Romeo and Juliet hold hands, Frère Laurent smacks their hands, while Gertrude looks on with warm approval. Their final quartet, “O pur bonheur,” is excellent.

Outside, Romeo’s page Stephano (soprano Kim Sogioka) distracts Tybalt and his Capulet cohort with a mocking little song about a dove that may fly the coop. But Tybalt fights Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Efrain Solis) and kills him; Tybalt in turn is killed by Romeo, who is then banished from Verona and from his beloved Juliet—a fate worse than death.

The curtain comes down, and comes up again on the chorus and some of the singers—and comes down again. What just happened? I’ve never seen such a curtain call, in the middle on an ongoing opera. Perhaps the director figured since the chorus were not to sing any more, they might as well take their curtain call and go home. Weird.

The married lovers have one blissful night together, putting off their coming separation until the last possible minute. As Gustave Kobbé wrote, “ . . . Gounod, austere in life and hedonist as composer, has written no more hauntingly passionate love music than this.”

Just after Romeo departs, Count Capulet arrives to inform Juliet that she must marry Count Paris immediately. No one dares tell him she’s already married. But Frère Laurent gives Juliet a potion which will make her appear dead.

In the final act, Romeo has heard that his beloved has died; he comes to the Capulet tomb to take poison; she revives, sees him dying, and stabs herself with his dagger—all with spectacular music.

The principals—Boyd, Munger, Langlan, Sogioka, Nicely and Tomlin—acquit themselves very well indeed.

Would that the production values had the same coherence. Harsh overhead lighting in one scene produced grotesque shadows on Juliet’s face. The stars in the balcony scene were breathtaking, but in the bedroom scene, the pretty moon is hauled haltingly up into place, as if someone offstage is wrestling with a cranky window shade. Romeo and Juliet sing of the approach of dawn, but the lighting goes dark. The impressive stone walls of the sets drew applause at first sight—but the scene shifts were annoyingly laborious and unnecessarily long.

Gounod’s opera, sung in French with English subtitles, sticks closely to Shakespeare’s text, but this production would have benefited from more imaginative direction.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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