On Saturday evening, Santa Fe Opera unveiled its first-ever production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, a work that, while not exactly a rarity, is nonetheless produced less often than its surpassing beauties merit. You know Shakespeare’s story, which Gounod’s librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, largely followed when they prepared their script — the tale of two feuding households in fair Verona and the tragedy that ensues when the brightest of their progeny, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, cross the line of familial division and fall in love.
Director Stephen Lawless sets the action not in Renaissance Italy but rather in the United States during or just after the Civil War. That is roughly contemporary to the opera’s composition, which took place from 1865-67. The stage walls are the interior of a mausoleum, where dozens of niches, floor to ceiling, bear the names of the deceased whose remains lie within. Most are men with period names like Winfield or Obadiah. Some are women, and, yes, there’s even a Scarlett. These grey walls are repositioned from scene to scene, but everything unrolls within their dour confines, adding irony to the festive ball in the Capulet palace and mortal inevitability to the scene in Frère Laurent’s cell, which here is a hospital — a credible transposition since the Frère needs access to pharmaceuticals. The walls are least welcome in Juliet’s garden, which lacks plants entirely and is distinguished only by a metal sculpture of Cupid. Some of the sarcophagal niches double as doors that pivot out to allow the characters’ entry and egress. The most unfortunate example of this is the passage from which Juliet steps onto her balcony for the most famous pitching of woo in all of theatrical history. That particular door, propped open for extended periods for all to see, is emblazoned with the name of Rufus Bumpus, not the most romantic of names, at least to modern ears.