What do critics know? For the most part, plenty. Print media music critics in this town almost invariably bring deep experience and technical know-how to their tasks. They are worth listening to. And yet, sometimes it's just as useful to ignore them.
Case in point, the recently concluded run of Romeo & Juliet by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. This production garnered no overtly positive reviews that I am aware of. I went to the final performance somewhat grudgingly, with low expectations. And yes, this critic found plenty of nits to pick (it's my job; some of the supporting cast was uneven), but on the whole, it was a delightful way to pass three and a half hours of a blustery Sunday afternoon.
One well-argued criticism was leveled against the opera itself. It's true that Charles Gounod's score lacks brilliance. Even the music for the climactic sword fight between Romeo and Tybalt is rather tepid (although Charles Conwell's choreography was elegant). Nobody left the theater humming melodies. But it is a well-proportioned drama, honoring the basic shape, if not the depth, of William Shakespeare. The vocal writing is fluid and natural, and comfortable for the singers.
The most controversial element of OCP's production was the staging, as directed by Manfred Schweigkofler, which updated the story to contemporary Italy, with the Montagues and the Capulets recast as warring fashion houses. But why not? Fashion is certainly a vicious, even deadly business. And it is a world that obsesses over youth and sexuality, two prominent undercurrents of the narrative. As a clever tie-in to these themes, OCP commissioned local design students to create couture for the House of Capulet, and used actual leggy models to show the stuff, further enhancing the production's raw, callow energy.
Not least, OCP cast a real-life couple, much closer in age to the teenage vintage of the title pair than is usual, recent AVA grads Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez. It almost seemed like cheating. They sang beautifully, as has been almost universally acknowledged, although she is a much more convincing actor. It was touching to witness the tumultuous ovation they received from a proud Philly audience. Sometimes, critics should pay attention to the hoi polloi.