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Luminous acting, very loud singing in vivid ‘Roméo & Juliette’

Alexander McKissick and Madison Leonard in Wolf Trap Opera’s “Romeo & Juliette.” (Scott Suchman)
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Opera should be a direct, emotional, moving experience: I say it all the time. So it would be churlish — even contradictory — for me to carp at the Wolf Trap Opera’s production of “Roméo & Juliette,” Charles Gounod’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s play, which will have its final performance Saturday night. Led by the radiant acting of Madison Leonard as Juliette, the young cast delivers a powerfully affecting and emotionally riveting performance.

It was also well conducted — Eric Melear and the orchestra positioned onstage, behind a screen, so that the sound was even louder in the intimate space of the Wolf Trap Barns — and cast with strong voices. The chorus of young soloists, made up of the company’s opera studio, has done a lot to come together since “Idomeneo” in June: Disparate then, on Thursday night they offered a rich, taut blend of sound.

My reservation? The singing itself — the nuance of it, the range of colors in an individual voice — got slightly short shrift. Many of the young singers performed as if opera singing itself were a single color: a very loud sound, emitted at maximum force to emphasize the pathos of what’s happening. There’s a lot of emphasis on the acting, but it isn’t always reflected in the way the artists sound: On a recording, a lot of the great things that even Leonard did to bring Juliette to life would have been lost.

Wolf Trap, always respectable in the acting department, has upped its game this year, with first “Idomeneo” and now “Roméo and Juliette” as compelling evenings of theater. “Roméo and Juliette” has, of course, the more familiar and adaptable plot, made even more relatable by being set, in director Louisa Muller’s production, in some nebulous 1950s period. Alexander McKissick, as Roméo, was dressed like Tony in “West Side Story,” jeans and black Converse sneakers and white T-shirt. Juliette’s female party guests were dressed in print dresses with short, poofy skirts; the men sported bright, shiny suits. The concept wasn’t forced, though; Friar Lawrence (Anthony Reed, a bass with a warm but still coltishly uneven voice) was timeless and dignified rather than obviously of a period.

Wolf Trap Opera trains young singers. “Idomeneo” revealed a young artist.

The only problem with the onstage orchestra is that it encouraged the singers to sing even louder, which exacerbated the monochromatic tendencies in otherwise beautifully realized performances (like Annie Rosen’s Stephano, the page). Not everyone had this problem: Thomas Glass was a standout as Mercutio, with a big easy sound that was now happy-go-lucky, now inflamed with rage and frustration. And Taylor Raven was underutilized as Juliette’s nurse; too bad Gounod didn’t write her another aria.

But McKissick epitomized what I might call the all-your-voice, all-the-time syndrome. He showed a nice, bright tenor, but had trouble doing anything with it except sing at the top of his lungs, leading to some audible strain. It was especially noticeable because his instincts were good and he tried to sing softly, but what he produced then was simply an underpowered version of his full voice, rather than the gentle, melting but fully supported sound that was once an essential part of a tenor’s vocal palette.

Leonard is having a busy year: after winning the Met auditions, she’s gotten to take leading roles in both of Wolf Trap’s summer operas, since Vanessa Vasquez, a 2017 Met winner who was scheduled to sing Juliette, came down with mononucleosis. Juliette certainly gave Leonard more dramatic scope than Ilia in “Idomeneo,” and as a character she was one of the most affecting Juliettes I’ve seen. She also sings with a natural sound rather than a self-consciously stentorian Opera Voice, a huge asset.

The only fly in her ointment on Thursday was that vocal technique, while adequate, sometimes took a back seat to acting, so that her first aria, “Je veux vivre,” was actually the low point of her performance, with some intonation issues and lack of technical clarity. It’s a quibble, because her performance was so good; but a significant quibble, because the lack of technical flexibility, of a real understanding of the melding of singing and acting, was a consistent weakness — indeed, the only weakness — of the evening as a whole.