Gounod’s ‘Romeo et Juliette’ at the Aspen Music Festival

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Pureum Jo and Joshua Guerrero rehearse for "Romeo et Juliette." The opera opens Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.
Ryan Cutler/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Gounod’s ‘Romeo et Juliette,’ presented by the Aspen Opera Theater Center

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, July 16 and Saturday, July 18, 7 p.m.; Monday, July 20, 8 p.m.

Cost: $70

Tickets and more information:

Though it’s the best-known love story in the world, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is, of course, a tragedy that ends with its “star-crossed lovers” taking their lives.

Tenor Joshua Guerrero and soprano Pureum Jo, the two young principals in the title roles at the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s new production of “Romeo et Juliette,” Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera adaptation of the stage classic, are aiming to retain the tragic tension of the story.

“Romeo et Juliette” opens Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House, directed by Edward Berkeley with music conducted by George Manahan.

With three weeks of rehearsal time before opening night, the cast showed up in June already knowing their music. That allowed them to focus on staging, character development and fine-tuning their vocals.

“Right off the bat, (Berkeley) gives you these great ideas to work with,” Guerrero said in a dressing room at the Wheeler before a recent rehearsal as the rest of the cast warmed up, their voices echoing through the backstage area. “We’ll sit down at a table reading, and he’ll give us a blueprint.”

That blueprint is less about stage movements and blocking than it’s about inhabiting fully formed characters.

Romeo and Juliet’s first night together, for instance, often played as romantic and saccharine, in this production boils with tension. Romeo, before the big night, has killed Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. The Aspen production opts not to gloss over that crisis.

“In most productions, it’s love scene, love scene, they’re in bed, blah, blah, blah — we’re dealing with the stress of, ‘Wow, I’ve just been exiled. I’ve just killed your cousin. We’re not supposed to be together,’” said Guerrero.

The life-and-death stakes of their coupling ought to intensify the love story at the heart of Romeo and Juliet, Jo said.

“It’s young and pure and passionate, and word by word, Shakespeare is so beautiful,” Jo said. “I always have butterflies. I really feel I’m falling in love.”

Both Guerrero and Jo are in town for their second summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School, studying under Berkeley. Both also are year-round students of Rice University voice teacher Stephen King, who is on the summer faculty in Aspen.

Guerrero, a member of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera, played Don Jose in last summer’s Aspen production of “Carmen.” Jo, a 2014 Juilliard School graduate and studio artist at Houston Grand Opera, shared the stage with Guerrero last summer as Micaela in “Carmen.” Their on-stage chemistry in “Carmen” made them a natural choices to tackle the complex duets of “Romeo et Juliette,” which Jo calls her “dream role.”

Gounod’s opera translates Shakespeare’s immortal words into a French libretto, with music adding color and mood, conducted here by Manahan, who Guerrero and Jo call “a singer’s conductor,” who can anticipate their breath and complement their voices through the five-act opera.

“Having these different colors thrown on, it gives it more dimensions in so many ways,” Guerrero said.

The talented young singers characterized Aspen as an operatic proving ground. The rigors of the Gounoud’s arias, the length of the show and the altitude in Aspen pose a challenge that has helped them grow as performers when they return to sea level.

“It’s like being put in the ultimate situation,” Guerrero said. “And being able to conquer that, you go back to sea level and it’s like, ‘Alright, let’s run this five times.’”

Aspen’s inspiring mountain landscape, the talent surrounding them at the music school and the nurturing environment of the opera program, Jo and Guerrero said, have been a boon for their burgeoning opera careers.

“They choose the right kinds of students here, that are going to encourage and uplift each other,” Guerrero said. “I’ve never seen a situation where musicians are butting heads. It’s probably the best situation you can be in to create, to sing, to perform.”

“Romeo et Juliette” is the first of three operas the Aspen Opera Theater Center will be performing this season. A double-bill, running July 30 and August 1, opens with Steven Stucky’s “The Classical Style,” followed by Christopher Theofanidis’s “The Cows of Apollo.” The opera season will close with Mozart’s comedy “Così fan tutte,” which will run August 18, 20 and 22.