Roméo et Juliette, Grange Park Opera, GPO, July 2018

Of the half-dozen or so operas on this Shakespeare play, Gounod’s is undoubtedly the best, and Patrick Mason’s staging in pre-war fascist Italy gives an interesting modern take on the background to the feuding families. Knives and baseball bats come out amidst threats and fights, leaving Juliette a prey to her own burgeoning emotions, her cousin Tybalt’s anger and her father’s insistent narcissism.

Balcony scene, all images GPO/ Robert Workman

The inimitable Clive Bayley gave a strong characterisation of this unsympathetic man who fancies himself with the ladies, and Anthony Flaum made a nastily smug Tybalt, whose ghost reappears to haunt Juliette later. But the star of the evening was Ukrainian soprano Olena Tokar, whose beautiful singing expressed her hopes, fears and anguish, from the unaffected simplicity of her Act I soliloquy about wanting to remain a girl living in the dream she inhabits, to her terrific duets with David Junghoon Kim as Romeo. Vocally outstanding he had the power, the tone and hit the high notes beautifully, but despite a mixture of smiles and frowns failed to engage with the emotional exigencies of the character.

With Friar Laurence

Among other notable performances, Mats Almgren provided Friar Laurence with wonderful bass gravitas and sympathy, and Olivia Ray was superb as Juliette’s nurse Gertrude. Her beautiful stage movement suggests serious dance training, unusual among opera singers. The chorus of Capulets and Montagues gave testosterone-fuelled aggression in their representation as black shirts and leather jacketed teenagers, with good fight scenes directed by Billy Bilham, and Francis O’Connor’s designs gave ample space and style, particularly in the women’s outfits, which immediately reflected the time period of society between the wars.

The lark or the nightingale?

In the orchestra pit, Stephen Barlow and the English National Opera orchestra provided powerful and sensitive support to the singers, particularly the young Olena Tokar, who is surely a star in the making. I only wish this five-act opera had started a little earlier than 6 pm, particularly for the Sunday performance that I attended.

Further performances take place on July 4 and 6 — for details click here.

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