Stage: Wednesday, January 16, 2003
Quiet Storm

In an age of big productions, the simpler French opera of Romeo and Juliette is a treat.


We live in an age of progress. It’s taken more than 50 years, but a Fort Worth Symphony conductor will lead the Fort Worth Opera for the first time this week. Miguel Harth-Bedoya takes the reins for a rare look at Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette.

No stranger to opera, the 35-year-old Peruvian grew up around the opera house of his native Lima. His mother was chorus mistress of the National Opera as well as vocal coach, and he assisted her in what became his early musical training. As a young teen-ager he was everyone’s gopher. Once during a rehearsal of Tosca, the conductor wanted to prowl the auditorium to check sound balances, so he asked Harth-Bedoya to lead the Te Deum that ends the first act. As the music surged around him, the youngster was hooked and knew what he wanted more than anything was to conduct.

However, as much as he loves it, opera presents scheduling problems. “You need four or five weeks rehearsal, minimum,” Harth-Bedoya said. “That’s a big hunk of time. I can guest-conduct an orchestra with two or three rehearsals and it’s over. Opera is a major time commitment.” His last operatic assignment was the world premiere of Stephen Paulus’ Heloise et Abelard at the Juilliard School in New York last fall. His next opera is Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he is associate conductor.

In the meantime he’s in Europe leading the Swedish Radio Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, as well as the orchestras of Munich, Hamburg, and Bamburg. This summer sees debuts with the Boston and Cleveland orchestras, with appearances in Toronto, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Newark coming up after that. “I’d like to work with the Fort Worth Opera again if they want me,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m available until 2005 or 2006.”

Securing Harth-Bedoya was one of the positive legacies of former director William Walker’s regime. The second was his discovery of soprano Olivia Gorra, who sang Lucia di Lammermoor here a few years back, as well as the four heroines in The Tales of Hoffman and a spectacular Norma last season. After Norma, Darren Woods, the company’s new general manager, quickly signed her for the title role of Juliette. A singer with natural dramatic instincts, she brings an abundance of vocal color and excitement to a performance. And there seems to be no limit to her range. She hit high F’s for the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and says she can make it to A, which is five notes above high C. Her voice has heft in the lower register and carrying power on top. Gorra covered Liu in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera the first half of the season, and, beginning in February, she will make her Met debut singing the role in the final performances.

Her Romeo is the handsome Richard Troxell, who was featured as Pinkerton in the 1995 film version of Madama Butterfly just released on DVD and who is making his Fort Worth debut here. The singer has appeared with the New York City Opera and other American and European companies. Romeo came his way when Troxell was covering the doomed hero for the Washington Opera while actually engaged as Tybalt. However, he got to sing two performances. “I really had to concentrate in the fight scene my first time as Romeo,” he said, “to make sure I killed the right person.”

Woods himself sang Tybalt in his performing years. “I sang mostly character roles that were usually comic relief,” he said. “I didn’t see much drama. But I loved Tybalt. He has a sword fight and gets killed, so I got to do a death scene.”

French opera hasn’t found a home in this country of late years. Carmen is done to death everywhere, and occasional performances of The Tales of Hoffman and Samson and Delilah pop up. Surprisingly, Dialogue of the Carmelites, a 20th-century work, has enjoyed a vogue, but when was the last time you saw Manon, Louise, or any of the staples of the French repertory? Even Gounod is usually represented by Faust if he appears at all. The dearth of French opera here seems to be the result of singers who find the music’s suave vocal style elusive and audiences partial to heroic blockbusters. The Fort Worth Opera revived Romeo and Juliette in the late 1960s with Karan Armstrong as the Shakespeare heroine. She was a pretty little thing, with a pretty little voice, and looked wonderful. What she knew about the role, though, you could put on the head of a pin. One hopes for a more expansive view this time around.

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