Review: Tenor, chorus and conductor carry Opera Center’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’ | AspenTimes.com

Review: Tenor, chorus and conductor carry Opera Center’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

There was much to like about Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette," the first opera of the season for the all-student Aspen Opera Theatre Center. Seen and heard Thursday at Wheeler Opera House, it featured terrific-sounding tenor Joshua Guerrero as Roméo, idiomatic and well-balanced conducting by George Manahan, excellent choruses and several fine turns in smaller roles.

Guerrero, who sang Don José in "Carmen" here last season, has already sung leading roles in L.A. Opera as a member of its young artists program. From the opening scene he displayed a sense of assurance, ringing high notes and fine phrasing.

For his part, Manahan led a 21-piece orchestra through a supple rendering of the score without ever overpowering the cast. Being opening night, a sense of nervousness rippled through the cast, which may account for why Pureum Jo, a soprano with great presence as Juliette, took the better part of the first half to get past an unfortunate stridency in her opening aria and the famous "Waltz Song."

Once she got those out of way she pushed less and trusted her lovely lyric sound. The balcony scene, one of several treasured duets in this melodic feast of an opera, had real heart and a good deal more delicacy. Guerrero got the scene rolling with an "Ah! Lève-toi soleil" sung with ease, and ping to the sound. The wedding scene, the bedroom scene and especially the death scene in the crypt went off more smoothly, although the electricity never quite reached high wattage.

Of special note in the smaller roles, Amber Frasquelle as Stéphano, Roméo's page, shaped a beautiful "turtle dove" arietta to taunt the Capulets and bring on the duels that take Mercutio's and Tybalt's lives. As Tybalt, Carlton Moe may not have had a full-fledged aria, but he added strong presence and solid singing.

Edward Berkeley trusted the story and the music, imposing no directorial glosses on the opera's simplified take on the Shakespeare play. John Kasarda's scenic design made creative use of poles, a sliding platform and globe lights spaced over the stage, which changed color with the scenes. A rolling staircase doubled as Juliette's balcony, a street scene and the background of the crypt in the final scene.

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Performances of "Roméo et Juliette" continue Saturday and Monday evening at the Wheeler.

In chamber music this week, the highlight was the annual Harris Hall visit from the Emerson Quartet. The prime beneficiary of their trademark precision and unity was a beautifully realized, rhythmically vital and expressive Dvořák String Quartet in F Major "American." They reveled in the bouncy pentatonic phrases that may or may not have been inspired by vernacular music the composer heard during his stay in the United States in the 1890s. Cellist Paul Watkins and violinist Eugene Drucker injected plenty of warmth in the theme that starts the bittersweet slow movement, but the Emerson's approach kept a bright comfortable tone in the rest.

They applied a gentle touch to Barber's "Adagio for Strings," a true icon of American classical music, in an unsentimental reading that let the harmonic beauty emerge clearly. Precisely played, Ravel's harmonically jazz-inflected String Quartet in F Major flew by without much impact, the moving parts not quite finding the thread, but Lowell Liebermann's restless String Quartet No. 5 received a haunting performance.

Jennifer Koh's recital Wednesday in Harris Hall, with Shai Wosner on piano, was part of the violinist's project pairing Beethoven sonatas with contemporary works commissioned for these occasions. The scales and gestures in Vijay Iyer's "Bridgetower Fantasy" might have alluded to Beethoven, but its screechy sounds made it hard to discern what else might have tied this work musically with the master's violin sonatas No. 1 and 9 "Kreutzer." Koh's rough, overly dramatic approach to Beethoven might have been inspired by "Bridgetower," but there was little beauty and not much refinement to the music-making.

Wosner provided the musical glue for Paul Kantor (violin) and Desmond Hoebig (cello) in Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, the highlight of Monday's chamber program in the music tent.

Not to miss in the coming days

The exciting young French pianist Lise de la Salle opens her program Saturday night in Harris Hall with a piano arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for violin and Ravel's ultra-challenging "Gaspard de la Nuit," and goes on from there. Monday's chamber music program in Harris Hall concludes with an all-star faculty cast of Alexander Kerr (violin), Eric Kim (cello) and Anton Nel (piano) playing Schubert's Trio in B flat.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in the Aspen Times.