Opera: Charles Gounod / Roméo et Juliet

KC Lyric Opera (2024)
Composed by Charles Gounod
Libretto: Jules Barbier / Michel Carré
Ben Bliss (Roméo), Andriana Chuchman (Juliette), Johnathan McCullough (Mercutio), Nicholas Newton (Frère Laurent), Ben Wager (Count Capulet), Benjamin Ruiz (Tybalt), José Olivares (Duke of Verona), Christine Boddicker (Stéphano), Johnathan Bryan (Count Pâris), Deanna Ray Eberhart (Gertrude), Riley Findley (Grégorio), Angelo Silva (Benvlio), Christopher Allen (Conductor).

After chronicling many operas on streaming and other media through the covid era, I finally finally go to the opera for real to see the KC Lyric Opera‘s production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Kauffman Center in downtown Kansas City. For my sacrifices in the service of high musical culture, I actually got awarded a press pass to attend and write about it. We’re getting posh here.

Glad to have the opportunity to spread the word about opera in my adopted KC because culture here is almost regarded as a dirty secret. I’ve been trying to find reviews of performances at the Lyric and have come up with scratch. If you go by the absolute absence of notices in The Kansas City Star you wouldn’t even know this city has an opera company.

I can’t quite wrap my head around all this. We’re a major American city with oodles of talented professional musicians plying their talents on the stage of a top notch concert hall; why not celebrate them? You’d think that the McClatchy Group – the corporate newspaper cartel who own the Star – could devote a small amount of ink and pixels to let an arts journalist crow about our fine classical performances. But they seem to have no budget for such a thing, having already diverted that money to underwrite another 10,000 articles about the Chiefs. 

And that’s a shame, because from my night at Roméo et Juliette I can say that they are missing out. So it’s up to me to tell my millions of neighbors what they’re missing. And so…

First, I’m happy to report that people here do get dressed up for the opera! On the elevator ride to the box office I had some trepidation that we might be overdressed. On my trips to the KC Symphony I’ve been disappointed by the excessively casual attire of the audience. But this crowd was well-tailored and splendiferous, with an abundance of silks, satins, and taffetas flaunted by the women, while a majority of the males were either suited or in jackets and designer shirt combos. I have to say that my KC does clean up rather nicely.

We had time to eat and got another pleasant surprise: discovering the Kauffman Center‘s restaurant, The Founder’s Lounge, where the host slotted us in without a reservation and took good care of us. As it was an eatery with a captive audience I wasn’t expecting much, but the Shepherd’s Pie and Chef’s Wedge Salad were to die for, and the featured wines we chose – California Cabernets and Merlots – did not disappoint. Dinner at the opera house, I think I like it. Great way to keep from starving if you skip dinner, yet don’t want to get neurotic with timing trying to find food in the Crossroads and still make the 7:30 curtain.

As the lights went down and the curtain opened I will admit to feeling like a nervous parent at their child’s play. Never seen regional opera before. Rooting for my adopted town to do good, or at least not forget its lines or fall on its face.

The fear was short-lived. It was plain from the jump that the production would not fail to please. The masked ball scene unfolded beautifully, highlighted by Ben Wager‘s commanding baritone which was a perfect match for Count Capulet. And Roméo Ben Bliss‘ lovely tenor and easy confidence offered evidence as to why our home town boy has been gone for so long from being in demand at top opera companies around the world.

When the Montagues arrived in the hall vacated by the Capulets in the Enfin la place est libre, Amis! scene, I was taken by the cast’s camaraderie and chemistry. The crew’s interaction so convincing I really did get lost in the proceedings; as they gathered around the grand carved oaken dining table I was sure that one of them would break out their mobile and order delivery from Q39.

There were standouts among this congenial group too. Johnathan McCullough played and sang a robust Mercutio, and Christine Boddicker played the plum role of Stéphano in top form. And I really liked Nicholas Newton, who sang the part of Frère Laurent with warm sensitivity. 

Special mention must go to mezzo-soprano Deanna Ray Eberhart, brought into the production through the KC Lyric’s Apprentice Artist Program, showed considerable élan in her portrayal of Gertrude – evidence that the KC Lyric can really pick ’em.

Chemistry was also in evidence with the two leads. The Juliet-Roméo rapport between Ben Bliss and Andriana Chuchman was excellent – or at least it seemed to be to be excellent. I don’t know the difference between real chemistry and artificially-created professionalism masquerading as chemistry. But it’s like wondering if you’re in love or you just think you’re in love – in the end, if it works does it really matter?

All I know is that at one point in the wedding night scene Chuchman and Bliss started going at it hot and heavy and I thought they might start giving each other the tongue and have to be separated. Despite their adult appearance, you sure could believe they were a couple of hormone-crazed teens just jumping out of their skins trying to get busy in the first canopy bed they could arrange. But these are two pros adept at keeping their passions at bay in playing this lovers-against-the-world role that contains such powerful aphrodisiac qualities.

The set and production design of the Lyric’s Roméo et Juliette really deserves a callout. Everything minimal but elegantly effective. A dominant theme of the production were large roses that appear above the action in different arrays, descending from the ceiling and changing color depending on which clan is on the stage. There were about a dozen silhouettes of long daggers suspended from the ceiling that lowered menacingly towards the action on the stage at appropriate times. The balcony scene was imagined on a 3D plane with windows hanging in space in front of Juliet’s bedroom. Then there was the set design for the marriage scene in Frère Laurent’s church – a simple layout of pews, with the background of the altar lowering down from the ceiling in the same manner as the frame before Juliet’s balcony.

There was also interesting use of blocking at the back of the stage, as in the wedding scene and also the final scene where they would lift the curtain just 5-6 feet above stage level to reveal a band of bright colored light to create an interesting kind of depth.

The tragic final scene that consumes Act V was well done by the leads, expiring in each other arms as those daggers descended from the ceiling before the sombre coda and final curtain. 

And so with the final resounding notes in our heads we lingered a bit before the glass of the Kauffman mezzanine admiring the view of downtown, eyes fixed in the direction of our beloved Western Auto sign, with its crimson arrow stabbing the skyline again and again and again like Juliet piercing her torso with Roméo’s dagger as if to say: Now wasn’t that a bloody great night at the opera?

The morning after the show I was recalling what a perfect evening it was. But a thought was nagging at me – how did the KC Lyric’s production of this opera stack up against those of other companies in larger markets? Was our production REALLY that great, or was I just being KC xenophobic?

To check my apprehension I dialed up The Metropolitan Opera’s 2017 production of Roméo et Juliet to see how the big dogs do it. Here’s how that went…

From the opening scene of The Met’s version you immediately got the sense of big money and the greater scale that goes with it. The set was an impressive rendering of a Verona courtyard with spectators looking down on a courtyard teeming with revelers, the lighting a morass of carefully placed moody shadows, the costumes a riot of jewel-toned opulence.

But before long the whole affair left me cold. Where the Montague clan in the KC Lyric’s production exuded warmth and camaraderie, I thought the Met’s Montagues were simply annoying. In their black leather(ette), open ruffled shirts, and macho chest puffing they came off like a bunch of ham actors on their way for a night at Johnny Depp’s Upper West Side sex club. Had Maxim magazine been published in the 16th century, the editorial staff might have looked a lot like these dudes. 

I vastly preferred our hometown boy Ben Bliss to Met Roméo Vittorio Grigolo. Perhaps it was only the costume designers’s fault, but with Griglio’s greasy wig, perfectly sculpted facial hair, and swaggering comportment you wouldn’t be surprised to see his Roméo roar up to Juliet’s balcony on a Harley wearing a Guns N’ Roses muscle shirt.

By Act II of The Met’s version I had seen enough. My internal referee stopped the fight early and declared KC Lyric the winner on its many points. If I had the chance to trade my seat at the Lyric for one at Lincoln Center for the same opera I feel I would have been the poorer for it. Our cast chemistry, ingenious sets and production design were so spot-on that there was nothing we had which was shown up by what I saw from the Big Apple.

Bravo and a standing O to the KC Lyric for offering this Roméo et Juliette and other operatic gifts to our city. I hope that sometime in the not too distant future someone The Kansas City Star will send a journalist from their staff to walk up the street from their offices A MERE FIVE BLOCKS FROM KAUFFMAN CENTER to review future performances so that the Lyric doesn’t have to invite a jabroni like me to tell everyone all about them.