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'Romeo et Juliette' a Feast for the Senses


There are many reasons not to miss San Diego Opera's revival--after 25 years--of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette"--old-fashioned, massive and gorgeously lit sets and costumes, an inspired (for once) orchestra in the pit conducted by a genuine expert at the French repertoire, and the old tunesmith's irresistible score, among others.

Most important and most crucial, however, are the two singers in the title roles, Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua and American tenor Richard Leech. At the opening of four performances Saturday night in Civic Theatre, Joshua and Leech, both in impeccable voice, sang handsomely and passionately, a combination not often achieved.

Making her U.S. stage debut--she previously appeared at BAM with the period ensemble Les Arts Florissants--Joshua displayed a voice of pristine beauty and a willingness, even a compulsion, to show off its many colors and its ability for quietude. She is an elegant actress--ever convincing as the innocent Juliet--who uses the voice as one element in a comprehensive characterization. She possesses and really sings all the high notes, yet never blasts or grandstands. At 32, she seems on the threshold of a major career.

She was aided in no small way by the conductor, Richard Bonynge, who kept the well-prepared orchestra in check and in sync with all that Joshua did. Bonynge also guided a tight, musically fluent, emotionally resonant performance of a score sometimes underappreciated--he has been doing this, in this pit, over a long period.

Healthy vocalism and a strong stage presence make Leech a worthy Romeo, if not a subtle one. As an actor, he reminds one more of Richard Dreyfuss' Richard III than Mel Gibson's Hamlet; he does not bring to Romeo's monologues the force of a lover's intensity, though his effortless and resonant singing cannot be faulted.

The surrounding cast offered Mark Doss' imposing, stage-holding Friar Laurence, Martha Jane Howe as a three-dimensional and roundly sung Gertrude, Jeff Mattsey's commanding, charismatic Mercutio, Beau Palmer's properly threatening Tybalt and James Scott Sikon's handsome, elegant Capulet. As Stephano, however, the moderately voiced Kate Butler was in over her head.

The large, confident and musically integrated chorus--which moved believably about the stage--is the handiwork of chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons.

Bliss Hebert's sensitive, dramatically valid stage direction held the action together without gimmicks or distractions. As a result, and in tandem with Bonynge's thoughtful pacing of the music, the evening, even with three long intermissions, seemed short.

One must credit two American Express companies for San Diego Opera's readable and practical supertitles, which do their job efficiently and are a pleasure to the eye. One can leave this opera house without being tired from reading the words.

* San Diego Opera's "Romeo et Juliette," conducted by Richard Bonynge, continues at Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego, tonight at 7, Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $31-$106. (619) 570-1100.

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