Theater Review: Chicago Lyric Opera’s Energetic ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

CHICAGO – The familiar story of the “star crossed lovers” by William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” has been given as many interpretations over the years as there are stars in the sky. The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents the operatic French version, with a bright and venerate staging. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

There are many duets in this opera, as can be expected, and the two vocalists – Joseph Calleja and Susannah Phillips – are up to the task of portraying the title characters with energetic and purposeful stage personas. The famous couple come to life, and the vocal actors provide them something extra – an authentic sense of true love, and all the fate that this love creates. “Romeo and Juliet” is a tragedy in the Shakespeare canon, but the Lyric Opera production generates a hopeful sense of “tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all” (kudos to another British poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, for that one).

Susannah Phillips, Joseph Calleja
Juliet (Susannah Phillips) and Romeo (Joseph Calleja) Find Love in ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Photo credit: The Lyric Opera of Chicago

Like William Shakespeare’s version, there are two warring houses in Verona, that of the Capulets and the Montagues – Juliet (Susanna Phillips) is the Capulet and Romeo (Joseph Calleja) of the other house. The opera begins with a masked ball at the Capulets, in which Romeo and his friend Mercutio (Joshua Hopkins) have crashed. Although Juliet is betrothed to another, Romeo sweeps her off of her feet. Despite the protections of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude (Deborah Nansteel), the couple are secretly married. This does not stop the war between the houses, and a confrontation of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Jason Slayden) with Mercutio ends in tragedy when Romeo intervenes. Distraught and overwhelmed, the lovers are split up due to the incident. The Capulets are insisting that Juliet marry her original fiancee, and instead she takes a potion to induce a death-like sleep. When Romeo discovers her, the tragic conclusion will follow.

This is a truncated and condensed version of the Shakespeare tragedy, with the author Charles Gounod (and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) focusing most of the action on the lovers, and less on the side characters. There are four duets for the lovers, naturally, including one in the end scene that deviates the most from Shakespeare version. The opera was first presented in 1867, and despite four other opera versions floating around, it is this one that has endured and been performed the most. This version of the production is at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first time.

With the focus on the lovers, what is most impressive is the way the lead vocal actors express the roles. There is a true “love at first sight” element in their demonstrations toward each other, with Susannah Phillips a giggly and gobsmacked Juliet when she meets her destiny. Joseph Calleja portrays Romeo as wily and intent, and although it was announced beforehand that the actor had a limiting motion back injury, he seemed just as present as if he had met his Juliet for the first time – proving young love cures all. The vocalizations soar with that love, as they express many intensities in duets along the way (“Ah, ne fuis pas encore!,” “Nuit dehyménée”). The opera is in French, but as always the lyrics are projected above the proceedings in English.

Romeo and Juliet
Sword Confrontation in ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Photo credit: The Lyric Opera of Chicago

The simple set is luxurious in the way it transforms itself. It presents itself as an Elizabethan-era street plaza, but converts itself readily into the ball scene, the church of the marriage ceremony and the dramatic scenes of confrontation. The famous where-for-art-thou balcony is present, and is lit from behind as if Juliet comes from a dream. The costumes are sumptuous glamor, but are muted to blend with the stage colors, except for Juliet, who often appears in a bright color to highlight her movements and transformations.

There is so much beauty to absorb in this adaptation, and the orchestration and vocal presentations are bold and fulfilling. In the cradle of interpretative civilization, even Shakespeare knew that nothing packs them in, and packs a wallop, like a great love story – and he invented one of the greatest.

“Romeo and Juliet” is performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Upper Wacker Drive at various days and times through March 19th, 2016. Click here for more information, dates/times and to purchase tickets. Featuring Susanna Phillips, Joseph Calleja, Joshua Hopkins, Deborah Nansteel and Jason Slayden. Written by Charles Gounod, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Directed by Bartlett Sher. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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