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ROMEO AND JULIET LITE : In Gounod's Opera, Our Hero and Heroine Get to Sing a Final Duet Before Dying

February 18, 1993|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

The tragedy of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is heightened by the fact that Romeo kills himself in the tomb beside Juliet without learning that she is alive.

Well, that kind of bitter, ironic ending might have been fine for the Elizabethans. But it would never do for a 19th-Century Romantic opera, even if it is based rather closely on Shakespeare.

So in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," which opens Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, there's a little twist.

"Juliette wakes up," recounts "Romeo" director Bernard Uzan. "She says, 'What did you do?' He says, 'I took the poison.' So she takes his knife, she kills herself and then they sing. They continue to sing, and 18 minutes later, they die. This is opera!"

As general and artistic director of L'Opera de Montreal, Uzan knows his way around the field.

He directed the premiere of this "Romeo" production for his Canadian company in 1986 and came to Orange County in 1990 to direct Verdi's "La Traviata" for Opera Pacific. Opera Pacific is also presenting "Romeo."

Over these years, he honed a method of working with singers as if they are actors.

"I work on the feelings, the emotions, the delivery of the lines," he says, "on how to color a word, what a word means, and not only what the French means, but what's really behind the word, what emotion or thought.

"What is most important to me," he stresses, "is to find the real motivations of each character at every second."

Some directors take that approach to an extreme, imposing their own ideas on the work. But Uzan refuses to do that.

"I am not the kind of director who--especially in a story like this--tries to say something that the work is not supposed to say. For instance, if I wanted to decide this story was in Palestine and the Capulets are Palestinians and the Montagues are Jews, I will do 'West Side Story'! I don't need to do 'Romeo et Juliette.' "

In fact, sometimes he works by telling the singers what not to do.

"I tell them, 'Please do not act the end at the beginning.' I mean, please do not act the next line, the next scene, the next act. The characters do not know this is going to be a tragedy.

"There is a permanent threat to them, of course, because of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. But they've lived with that for years and years and years, so they're are not tragic all day long."

He wants the story to unfold naturally. But an obstacle is that while singers work musically and vocally on roles for months, he feels they do not spend enough time thinking about each line, as actors do.

"This is not acceptable," he says. "I tell them, for instance, 'Look when you say vous and when you say tu. Why the change? There is a reason. It means something.' "

He insists that these ideas do not compete with the music or with the role of the conductor.

"I do not change the music," he stressed. "I do not change the tempos. But conductors rarely give interpretations of character. The director does that."

Over the course of directing "Romeo" since 1986, his thoughts about the characters and production have changed more than a dozen times.

"The mood has changed," he says. "It's gotten lighter. The characters are not brooding all the time."

Why?

"I'm less angry with the world than I was. I always was a very tense person and very concentrated, and I've started to find peace with myself. . . . That's influenced my work. Let's say it's more tolerant."

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