Chautauqua Production Creates Lasting Memory

CHAUTAUQUA – Chautauqua Institution flexed all of its artistic muscles at the same time Saturday evening, and the result was an event which will live forever in the memories of those who were lucky enough to see and to hear it.

The event was called “The Romeo and Juliet Project,” and it involved full scale performances by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Chautauqua Theater Company, the Chautauqua Opera Company, the Chautauqua School of Dance and the North Carolina Dance Theater, the Vocal Department of the Chautauqua School of Music, and a jazz ensemble from the Music School Festival Orchestra.

I arrived about an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin, and had genuine difficulty in finding a seat. By curtain time, every seat was filled in the giant Amphitheater, including many seats in the choir loft, above and behind the stage, which originally was planned not to be used. Even seats behind poles were filled, by audience members who leaned rapidly from side to side in the hope not to miss anything on the stage.

The true test of audience fidelity at Chautauqua is how many people stay until the very end, rather than wandering away at intermission, and in fact the curtain calls saw a solid sea of heads, with no empty seats visible. People even chose not to leave during the applause, but stayed as long as the stage lights were on.

The event was the inspiration of Vivienne Benesch, artistic director of the theater company. For years, she has been trimming Shakespeare’s play, removing characters such as Paris and Benvolio, to reduce the length of the project without losing the central story. She has been conferring with the heads of other department to choose the best music to be sung, the best choreography to be danced, etc.

There were three Romeos on stage, an actor, a singer, and a dancer. Other principal characters were similarly duplicated and smaller characters sometimes had only one or two performing artists. There were as many as 80 performers on the stage at a time, and more than 150 names are written in the project’s credits.

Under Ms. Benesch’s direction, the focus was passed forcefully from actor to singer to dancer, as needed, and sometimes it was shared. The principal works of music performed were from the opera “Romeo et Juliette” by Gounod, ballet music for dance versions of the plot by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, and scenes from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein. Other composers included Berlioz, Duke Ellington, and even the pop song “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”

Choreography was by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of the dance company, with a scene by Mark Diamond, associate director.

Actor Romeo was Brian Smolin. Singer Romeo was tenor Yujoong Kim. Dancer Romeo was Pete Walker. Juliet was acted by Arielle Goldman, sung by soprano Rachel Sterrenberg, and danced by Anna Gerberich. The audience was sometimes made uncomfortable by the fact that if an element of dance delights them, it is appropriate to applaud, while the dancers continue to move. When a sung aria so delights an audience, it is appropriate to wait until the singer stops and then to applaud for as long as is appropriate. When an acted passage delights an audience, it is appropriate to wait until the end of the performance and then to give appropriate praise. People found themselves repeatedly applauding the dancers, then greeting the actors with silence, and that felt most uncomfortable. All of them were excellent.

In general, the entire event was a delight. The quality of the performers was stunning. The production values were stellar. The play is an emotional one, but the production came at one’s emotions through gorgeous and graceful dance, powerful and thrilling singing, and humane and masterful acting. It was a brilliant evening of arts.