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Romeo et Juliette, Opera Hong Kong

One of the challenges of presenting Western opera outside its original, and some might say natural, home is to achieve something other than a milquetoast simile of a Western performance. Too much localization risks looking forced or inauthentic. Avant-garde productions may fall on fallow ground with audiences who don’t see enough opera to be familiar with traditional interpretations.  It can be hard to find the right balance between overseas talent and local, often “emerging”, artists. And there is always the matter of keeping everything within budget.

Romeo et Juliette, Opera Hong Kong

Opera Hong Kong’s recent Roméo et Juliette, the grand opera component of this year’s Le French May festival, took the approach of requesting a new production from French director Arnaud Bernard whose intention, he said, was to “reintroduce the violence” back into the drama. Fair enough: Roméo et Juliette is usually a pretty opera—a rather cutting review of a production earlier this year in Chicago opined that Gounod and his librettists “took Shakespeare to the patisserie”—and some additional grittiness would not go amiss.

The tone was set by hulking walls of stone that served both as exterior and interior and which dominated the stage. The balcony was a long way up, emphasizing distance, and even when the lovers sang their duets together, they did so in a shadow of overhanging menace.


[caption id='attachment_1' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Act III, Scene 2 (Opera Hong Kong)[/caption]

But the production looked forward as much to West Side Story as backward to either Shakespeare or medieval Italy. The internecine strife of Guelphs and Ghibellines was represented as intricately-staged gang warfare. Costumes were largely but not entirely and somewhat vaguely updated to the present day: Romeo was in a leather jacket and Juliet in almost après-ski outfit of white pants and jacket. Movement, and there was lots of it, seemed to point more to contemporary musical than traditional opera.

The result was something different enough to demand attention—and to be appealing in its immediacy—but not so artificially different as to be jarring.


In addition to the French director, Opera Hong Kong brought in several French artists—this is Le French May after all.


[caption id='attachment_0' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Sébastien Guèze and Vannina Santoni (Opera Hong Kong)[/caption]

Roméo and Juliette were, thank goodness, cast young: the up-and-coming Sébastien Guèze and Vannina Santoni. They certainly looked the part, at least in a Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes sort of way: vibrant, energetic, sympathetic and believable with voices to match. Neither is yet anywhere close to the peak of his or her respective careers. Theirs was in tone, style and diction, a very French Roméo et Juliette—something not perhaps entirely necessary, yet rare and appealing in this era of multinational casts. Guillaume Andrieux’s Mercutio, Guy Bonfiglio’s Capulet and the Tybalt of Haô Ting (French malgré son nom) rounded out an accomplished and mostly francophone cast.

The presence of the annual Le French May means that Hong Kong gets a higher proportion of French opera and the artists to go with it than might—purely statistically—be expected otherwise. This is no bad thing. This year’s Roméo et Juliette was chosen because 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Opera Hong Kong’s next fully-staged production in October will be also be a tribute to Shakespeare: Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello in October.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.