Al fresco opera can be a rough-and-tumble sport, with this most lavishly demanding of art forms squaring up against the vagaries of weather, the impact of humidity on instruments, the unpredictability of crowds, the obbligato accompaniments of sirens, airplanes, car alarms, and just the stratospheric expense of it all.
One can understand then why Boston Lyric Opera’s last venture on Boston Common — a staging of “Carmen” in 2002 — did not become an annual affair despite its popular success and a crowd estimate, reported in the Globe, of 60,000. In fact, the challenge is apparently so prohibitive that the company waited a full two decades, all the way until Thursday night, before giving opera on the Common another whirl, this time with Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Working in partnership with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, BLO prevailed over the manifold challenges, delivering a well-executed, rewarding night of opera in the heart of the city. A receptive if modest-size crowd of some 1,700 people turned out for this first of two performances, listening on blankets and beach chairs as Gounod’s sumptuously lyrical music played out beneath a sky that was not exactly starry but neither was it star-crossed. In other words: The weather was perfect. The second and final performance will take place Saturday, Aug. 13.
Somewhere near the end of Act II of Shakespeare’s original play, Romeo pleads “Let rich music’s tongue unfold the imagined happiness. . .” Plenty of later composers have taken up this imperative, with Bellini, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev all the way down to Leonard Bernstein unfolding their own imagined happiness through musical versions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet in opera houses around the world, the play’s most enduring adaptation is surely that of Charles Gounod, which premiered in Paris in 1867, with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.
Thursday’s performance was lifted by its strong singing and the fine work from the onstage 47-piece orchestra; the biggest challenge of the night came from the risibly wooden English-language translation used. In fairness, the production was billed as “based on” Gounod’s opera, and the creative team no doubt sought the accessibility and immediacy of impact that can come with opera sung in the language of the audience, but this time the equation was not quite so simple: We were given a streamlined, unfamiliar English rendering of a French adaptation of a word-by-word indelibly famous English play, adding up to a kind of would-be circular loop that actually landed you, linguistically speaking, very far from Shakespeare’s original. Perhaps by way of compensation, the cast of singers was supplemented by two actors (Ed Hoopman and Cheryl Singleton) who on occasion interpolated spoken lines from the original play and selections from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The cast was led by Vanessa Becerra as Juliet. A gifted young soprano on the rise, she sang with clarity, luster, and charisma. Ricardo Garcia’s Romeo was ardently sung and broadly acted. Mack Wolz (Stephano), Nicholas LaGesse (Mercutio), and Omar Najmi (Tybalt) were strong in their supporting roles, as were Fred C. VanNess Jr., Joshua Conyers, Arielle Rogers-Wilkey, and David McFerrin, rounding out this capable cast. Veteran baritone Philip Lima brought a welcome dignity to the role of Friar Laurence.
CSC artistic director Steven Maler’s concise production was inspired by the culture of busking, and presumably in that spirit, the cast makes its initial entrance by wading casually through the crowd as if just coming off the subway at Park Street. As heard through a notably clear amplification system — and taking this based-on-Gounod production on its own terms — BLO music director David Angus had the orchestra and chorus sounding in good form, and his fluid, idiomatic approach to Gounod’s voluptuously songful score anchored the evening as a whole.
It was good to see BLO back on the Common, and the company deserves credit for delivering this opera as a kind of gift to the city at large. In a way, the best way to judge this kind of performance is by its effect on the uninitiated. My sample size may be small, but I can report that my 11-year-old guest, a newcomer to opera, sat riveted for scene after scene.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Opera by Charles Gounod. Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. In partnership with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and the City of Boston. At Boston Common, Thursday night. Repeats Aug. 13 at 8 p.m.