'Romeo and Juliet'

The fate of two lovers caught between rival families

The tragic tale of the young lovers is familiar to the literary world due to the popularity of the Shakespeare play. The plot has been replicated down the centuries into contemporary settings but always with the conflict of two rival forces coming between innocent lovers.

In recent memory there have been two takes on the Shakespeare original. The lavish movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1968) and the perennial version by Leonard Bernstein as a stage musical and later movie (1961), "West Side Story." Although set in New York City with a young American street gang fighting Puerto Ricans, the plot remains the same even with the traditional balcony scene on a fire escape.

San Diego Opera presents the best-known of at least 18 operas based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as the third production of the season at the Civic Theatre. Charles Gounod, composer of the opera icon "Faust," climbed back into popularity at the premiere of his new opera in Paris in 1867 after suffering three consecutive failures. Critics felt that the composer could not surpass the success of "Faust." However, "Romeo and Juliet" has remained in the standard repertory because of the familiar tale set to a lyrical score.

Gounod pioneered new concepts in orchestration based somewhat on his admiration and acquaintance with Richard Wagner, the contentious opera innovator of the day. Yet his compositions reflect the transparency and lyricism of French opera style that carried over to the music of Jules Massenet, according to conductor Karen Keltner. She refers to the score as "a ballet of color in French."

The big scenes in Gounod's opera are the familiar masked ball at the Capulet palace in Verona where Romeo is smitten by Juliet not knowing she was one of the Montague family enemies. The famous soliloquy about Queen Mab sung by Mercutio is there, along with the romantic balcony scene and the fatal duel in the city piazza that ends with Romeo being banished by the Duke of Verona for killing a Capulet. The final scene of duo-suicide for the sake of love is a tragedy known to all.

Shakespeare's inspiration for his 1596 play was a poem written 60 years earlier. The basic plot of family feuds separating young lovers is traced back to popular Italian Renaissance literature, even as far back as fourth century Greece in a tale by Xenophon.

The lovers are cast with Ailyn PĂ©rez and Stephen Costello, real-life lovers who are husband and wife making their SDO debuts. Also singing here for the first time is David Adam Moore in the provocative role of Mercutio. Karen Keltner, resident conductor, leads the ensemble in her 39th SDO production. The lavish sets and costumes from Utah Opera are traditional for the Italian Renaissance period.

"Romeo and Juliet" is performed in French with English text over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 13 and Tuesday, March 16; 8 p.m. Friday, March 19; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 21. For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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