"I’m thrilled to be collaborating with director Simon Godwin; Simon ardently believes that art must aspire to rapture and I can’t think of a better approach to Shakespeare and Gounod’s masterpiece."
-- Evan Rogister, Principal Conductor of Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, on Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the city-wide Shakespeare Everywhere Festival.
Maestro Rogister and Rosa Feola, who will be singing the role of Juliet(te), were kind enough to chat with WETA Classical about the WNO production.
Nicole Lacroix: What are the most notable moments in Romeo and Juliet for you, musically?
Evan Rogister: By nature, opera is an interplay of words and music, but rarely is a score as inspired by text as Roméo et Juliette. Gounod was fascinated by Shakespeare’s play from a young age. When he finally sat down to compose, the music was completed in one month! In four gorgeous duets written for the star-cross’d lovers, Gounod captures the arc of their relationship from infatuation to deep love, from a dream-state to tragedy. Musical themes which represent Juliet’s unconditional love or Romeo’s sorrow are transformed and subtly woven into scenes where they are recalled—very much like Wagner’s use of leitmotifs.
NL: Besides the singers, can you spotlight various sections and/or instrumental solos to listen for?
ER: I’m always struck by the Prologue’s simple pairing of chorus and harps—led here by our Principal Harpist, Susan Robinson. It’s a master stroke of Gounod to combine the plucked sounds of the lyre with a Greek Chorus. The haunting color of this passage foreshadows strife between the houses of Montague and Capulet. To portray deep human suffering, Gounod relies heavily on the darker colors of the orchestra including the cellos and clarinets. Listen out for the cello quartet in the Prologue—led by our Principal Cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten. This remarkable passage returns in the famous tomb scene and inspired Verdi to write for cello quartet in another musical depiction of a Shakespeare drama involving fatal love, Otello. At the first rehearsal, I joked with our Principal Clarinetist, David Jones, that this opera is almost a Clarinet Concerto! Clarinets are true chameleons—able to portray both comedy and tragedy—and Gounod exploits this quality time and again with solos for the clarinetist.
NL: What for you, Rosa, as Juliet, are the difficulties of the role?
Rosa Feola: The difficulties start from the first day you open the score until the last performance. Maybe because it’s my debut in the role, but I feel in Juliette the memory of youth and that gives me the responsibility of becoming a character with a pure soul. And then the music arrives… Extraordinary! I become lost in the truth of their emotions. But we are actors and singers at the same time and the difficulty is to control the emotions so that they do not ruin the music lines.
NL: There are four “pillars” in this opera, duets between Romeo and Juliet reflecting their growth in maturity. How do you grow from the innocence of the Madrigal scene to the balcony scene, to the wedding night and finally the death scene, which is almost Wagnerian, that idea of love in death?
RF: The first emotion they feel is curiosity, connected with their age’s light-heartedness, then the understanding of danger enters their consciousness. Later it translates to passion, and the passion becomes faith… until their death. 'I will be with you, in every form your spirit will be': that’s my motivation. They are directly connected.
NL: What are your favorite parts of the role?
RF: One of my favourite parts is the poison aria. I feel I need to interpretate the lyrics with both the strength of hope and declamation of fear. Two opposites but strongly connected.
NL: Simon Godwin, whose day job is artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatres, has set the WNO production in the present. He explains that Shakespeare’s plays were not presented as historical re-enactments, but as contemporary stories. Adapting to various interpretations must be easy for the KCOHO since it’s the only orchestra in the country dedicated solely to the performance of three musical genres: opera, ballet and musical theater. So, I guess they are extremely flexible and ready for the most demanding situations.
ER: Aside from technical virtuosity, the most important skills for any musician are listening and flexibility. As you say, the KCOHO occupies a unique position in the musical landscape of this country—there are many orchestras that play one or two of these genres, but no other organization that specializes in all three. It means that our musicians have an eclectic knowledge and understanding of style on top of a vast repertoire. In a way it’s like having a family of polyglots who time travel—we often transition from playing an 18th century Italian/German opera to a 19th century French ballet and then jump forward 150 years to a masterpiece of the American Musical Theater.
NL: Can you give some examples of challenging productions?
ER: One of the main challenges in theatrical music is synchronization. I don’t mean just how we line up words and music or balance levels, but also how the orchestra synchronizes on a bigger scale. All of the miniature moments of togetherness should add up to an experience that overwhelms the senses.
NL: Speaking of rapture and overwhelming the senses, Rosa Feola, why do you think this story has stood the test of time? We know how it’s going to end, but we relive the tragedy each time--If only Friar Laurence’s letter had reached Romeo in time!
RF, aka Juliet: Easy: empathy for the first love!
Rosa Feola stars as Juliet with Romeo sung by Adam Smith in Washington National Opera’s production of Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Simon Godwin is the director, Evan Rogister conducts the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
November 4-18 Kennedy Center Opera House
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