Monday, May 29, 2006

Spoleto's Juliet is a joy to behold

Heroine in festival's operatic production has voice that justifies hype

CHARLESTON - It sounds at first like typical marketing hype: The British Broadcasting Corp. calls its vocal contest Singer of the World. Next thing you know, somebody will dream up a competition that declares its winner an idol.

But Nicole Cabell, who won the BBC's prize in 2005, makes the contest's name sound a lot more reasonable. When she's on stage at Spoleto Festival USA as the heroine of Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, it's hard to imagine who in the world could make Juliet more compelling.

Cabell's Juliet exudes the passion of young love. Her voices sparkles and glows. No matter how high Gounod's rapturous melodies soar, Cabell exults in them. No matter how fierily she opens up in the music's big moments, her voice's shine is undimmed.

Even an operatic Juliet needs more than voice, of course. Cabell, youthful and svelte, is instantly believable as a girl swept up in romance.

Her broad smile must gleam all the way to the back row of Charleston's Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, where the production opened Friday night. Her lustrous eyes capture a wealth of feelings -- especially the darker ones that Spoleto's staging, big on death wish, plays up.

Frederic Antoun, just as youthful in sound and appearance, cuts an ardent figure as Romeo. His voice doesn't sail aloft as easily as Cabell's, but it rings. After Juliet leaves Romeo at the end of the balcony scene, his tender tones give her one last caress.

There and in the other two duets at the opera's heart -- the duo's meeting and the climactic tomb scene -- Cabell and Antoun have a magnetism that practically tells the story. That's lucky for Gounod, because they're surrounded by a staging that doesn't necessarily make sense.

This is the second time in recent years that Spoleto has shifted the immortal love story into the present. In 2004, for Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi Spoleto turned the clans into warring crime families. Now, directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil have cast Juliet's family as the owners of an ultramodern mortuary and mausoleum. Carol Bailey's sets give the production shape through Spartan but imposing panels.

That yields one moment of visual magic: During the balcony scene, the light that from yonder window breaks is coming from Juliet, lighting a bank of candles in a chapel.

But there's no hint as to what Romeo's family does or why they're at odds with Juliet's. Is the funeral business so cut-throat? Why does a funeral home need a phalanx of guards wielding billy clubs? Why does the mortuary let Friar Laurence -- decked out in clerical collar, lab coat and surgical gloves -- hang around with a corpse?

But the cast follows the leading duo's model, surmounting the questions through their energy, commitment and secure voices. Baritone Kevin Greenlaw's Mercutio is especially lively -- and unintimidated by the directors' gambit of having him sing about Queen Mab by turning into her in improvised drag, complete with bare breasts.

The festival orchestra, led by Tommaso Placidi, plays not only with power, but with a sleekness that suits Gounod's French elegance. The chorus mirrors that. Shakespeare's romance prevails.

Steven Brown
Charlotte Observer

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