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BWW Reviews: Austin Opera's Star-Crossed Lovers Shine in ROMEO & JULIET

On Saturday night, I was treated to the most exquisite production of Austin Opera's ROMEO & JULIET. Upon taking my seat, I opened the program to the Stage Director's notes. I couldn't help but chuckle at his chosen title; "Teenagers Make Bad Choices." Indeed...and touché. And as I would quickly learn, Douglas Scholz-Carlson would prove to be a gifted director, marrying the elements of reality with the magical beauty of the story everyone knows, bound together with the late French romanticism of Gounod's lush score. As the director states in his notes, "I used to think that it was a story of idealistic youth...I think that the story is more about the adults. Teens will be teens, but the adults need to grow up and guide the children to maturity." This is a very realistic way of approaching the story. Truly, adults aren't quite the perfect creatures we all envisioned as children, and they sometimes make rash decisions in the heat of a moment. Such decisions lead us to the tragic ending of this tale.

Gounod's warlike overture begins by illustrating Shakespeare's rivalry between the two families. The chorus tells of the unavoidable tragedy: "Verona, saw of old, two rival families: The Montagues, the Capulets. From their endless wars, to both of them fatal...Shed blood on the threshold of their palaces. Like a vermilion ray shines in a stormy sky, Juliette appeared, and Roméo loved her." Mr. Scholz-Carlson's staging of the overture is gorgeous; the two young lovers magically appear, and in a moment perish before our eyes. His talent with fight choreography is equally impressive. There is nothing more depressing than seeing a beautiful production, only to have it ruined by horribly constructed fight choreography, which can unintentionally turn a fight scene into something comical. But in this production, the swordplay was not only explosive and exciting, but the director himself even stepped-in on opening night and performed, because a sword-fighting cast member was out with illness. Impressive, Sir!

Playing the role of Juliet, soprano Joyce El-Khoury was simply incredible. Even though she was a bit covered by the orchestra at times in her initial scene, her exquisite color and powerful range were equally matched by her acting throughout the story. The soprano's young, lovely features not only "looked the part", but her authenticity within the role was incredible. There was honesty in her growth from the naïve and pure girl to the passionately determined (and ultimately doomed) bride. During her aria, "Je veux vivre", Ms. El-Khoury maintained her poise and professionalism as a medical emergency on the second floor balcony occurred (which received a quick response by AO staff) and handled the difficult passages with ease and brilliant nuance. Her most impressive moments took place during acts four and five, in which she proved her brilliant vocal power and character depth. Her passionate performance of "Amour, ranime mon courage" was breathtaking.

In the role of Romeo, tenor Stephen Costello looked exactly how one would picture the young romantic hero. Just before curtain, General Director Joseph Specter announced that Costello had agreed to sing, despite being a tad bit under the weather. Regardless, the tenor performed beautifully, only struggling with a few issues in his higher register due to the illness. The audience perhaps had a harder time connecting with his character because of a tendency to hold his gaze downward at the stage and general lack of expression. Despite this, there is no denying that there was a youthful honesty, playfulness, and genuine chemistry between the two young lovers. With Costello's Russian-ballet-star looks and El-Khoury's charismatic beauty, the two were pure magic, looking like something taken directly from a fairy tale.

Standout performances included mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler as the Nurse Gertrude, and bass Peter Volpe as Friar Laurence. As true, seasoned professionals, every moment they are on stage, they are a pure joy to watch. They both possessed a vocal timbre and powerful resonance that is rare and hard-to-find in the world of opera today; every facet of their characters were perfectly executed...not one opportunity missed. Every facial expression, every subtlety, every moment was expertly performed.

The flawless and ever-powerful orchestra under the direction of Maestro Richard Buckley was absolutely breathtaking, and the Austin opera chorus was superb, as always. Led by Chorus Master Marc David Erck, this opera chorus is one of the finest you will experience in this part of the country, and many don't realize just how rare it is to have such a polished and professional ensemble in their region.

Without a doubt, Gounod's ROMEO & JULIET is one of Austin Opera's finest productions, and they have assembled a cast of the highest caliber. Paired with a gorgeous set, costumes and staging, this is not a production that one would want to miss. "If music be the food of love, play on."

Austin Opera's ROMEO & JULIET will be playing now through Sunday, February 1st at The Long Center at 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704. Performances are Saturday January 24th at 7:30PM, Thursday January 29th at 7:30PM, and Sunday February 1st at 3:00PM. Tickets are $15-$200. For tickets and information, please visit

From This Author - Michelle Hache