Review: ‘Roméo et Juliette’ at Grange Park Opera

The Montagues and Capulets are transported to 1930s Italy at the Theatre in the Woods

Olena Tokar as Juliette and David Junghoon Kim as Roméo. Image: Robert Workman

The last time I was at Grange Park Opera, it was the night of the most recent general election. The Theatre in the Woods, the handle for its newly built opera house set in the grounds of Bamber Gascoigne’s country pad in West Horsley, Surrey, was still half-built. The evening ended with possibly one of the most dramatic exit polls in British political history being read out by Jonathan Dimbleby on stage. Theresa May was strong and stable no more.

If the year since has felt like being in a Brexit holding pen, at least punters can return to a Grange Park that has come on enormously. The rotunda theatre has been handsomely clad in brick. Its wooden interior is on its way and the plasterboard walls are currently decorated with a light display. Grange Park is nothing without its patrons so Wasfi Kani, its indefatigable founder, misses no opportunity to tease more money out of Surrey’s delighted swells. She was joined by Dame Joanna Lumley, who promised the punters immortality in exchange for a mention of the opera company in their wills. Her husband Stephen Barlow in the pit was poised to conduct a good-looking new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Gounod’s opera is a frenchified version of Shakespeare’s play on speed. Gone are Romeo’s parents, gone is Juliet’s mother. Sundry other parts are slashed with abandon. We pop in and out of the key scenes, stopping for a duet or four between the teenage lovers who, vocally at least, do most of the heavy lifting.

Olena Tokar as Juliette and David Junghoon Kim as Roméo. Image: Robert Workman

David Junghoon Kim, who has recently left Covent Garden’s young artist programme and has started to build a career as a leading tenor, plays Romeo. His voice has an effortless top, which this role calls on regularly. With that sort of steel in his vocal, bigger and more exciting parts beckon. His ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil!’, one of the opera’s two famous arias, was particularly impressive.

The other well-known tune is the entirely inappropriate but nonetheless infectiously upbeat waltz, ‘Ah! Je veux vivre!’, given to Juliet before she meets Romeo and while she is trying to avoid marrying Paris. The young Ukrainian soprano Olena Tokar is charming and affecting. This Juliet is an innocent among a set of fascist Capulets, as they are in producer Patrick Mason’s 1930s Italian update on the tale of the star-crossed lovers.

Olena Tokar as Juliette. Image: Robert Workman

Out with the doublets and hose and in with jack boots and Sam Brown belts: the Capulets are blackshirts; the Montagues more ‘loungy’ in Great Gatsby-style knitwear with flyboy leather jackets, both gangs going at each other with flick knives. It all looks very handsome and is not overplayed – a backdrop rather than a back story, adding a spot of pre-war drama. 

Of the smaller parts, the trouser role of Stephan is performed with swagger by Anna Grevelius, and baritone Gary Griffiths as Mercutio sings with much panache. The tenor Anthony Flaum makes the most of Tybalt, singing with well-focused intensity combined with a fiery stage presence. Together with the veteran bass baritone Clive Bayley as Capulet père, he adds much-needed flesh-and-bone to an opera that can feel a little light on human insight.

Clive Bayley as Capulet. Image: Robert Workman

But it’s those duets you come for, and Barlow and English National Opera’s orchestra produce a gorgeous sound that brings grand opera to a Surrey that’s delighted to welcome it.

‘Roméo et Juliette’ is in repertory until 6 July at Grange Park Opera. 

 ***

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