Minnesota Opera presented an attractive production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 2008, and now, to open its 54th season, the company has brought the opera back in a new eye-filling production with a smart cast, thoughtful staging by Matthew Ozawa and persuasive conducting by Michael Christie.

In fact, what the audience saw Saturday night at the Ordway Music Theater was surely good enough to be called a first-rate production of a second-rate opera.

Gounod was a weak dramatist. He wrote some nice tunes, however, and these have made his “Romeo” a hit that still resonates with the public. And then there’s the libretto by Barbier and Carre — quite sentimental compared with the Shakespeare play and with only two characters of any substance, our star-crossed lovers.

Ozawa added a few subtle touches, nonetheless. In the opening party scene, for instance, it’s clear that Juliet is being coerced by her father into marrying Paris. She’s property, in other words. And although there’s nothing subtle about the chief symbols that adorn designer William Boles’ sets, and that he shows us over and over again — huge pink roses signifying, of course, love, while swords, representing hate and violence, descend from the ceiling — they’re fun to look at.

He sets the opera in Shakespeare’s time rather than the medieval period, which gives ample opportunity for Sarah Bahr’s opulent costumes. And he stages an intriguing pantomime during the overture. Our Romeo and Juliet, Joshua Dennis and Angela Mortellaro, dressed in contemporary garb, walk downstage and then are put into period costume by chorus members. The suggestion is a play within a play but also that the opera’s central conflict — enmity and warfare between families, to say nothing of nations — continues up to the present day.

As for Dennis and Mortellaro, they don’t look any more like teenagers than did any of the hundreds of other singers who have performed these roles. (Juliet is supposed to be a mere 14.) But they certainly looked youthful.

Dennis’ Romeo was more sincere than heroic, more high school class president than captain of the football team. But he made his sincerity believable, and his voice, a robust tenor with baritonal heft, rose to the high climaxes with ringing, ardent bravado.

Mortellaro, a former resident artist with this company who has gone on to a big career, was a Juliet both fragile and passionate. Perhaps due to nerves, her high notes were shrill at the start, but they quickly turned radiant and unforced. Most impressive was her gutsy delivery of the so-called potion aria, a number that Gounod cooked up for Adelina Patti some years after the opera was premiered.

Thomas Glass was a confident Capulet, Phillip Addis an adroit, limber Mercutio and Gina Perregrino a sprightly Stephano. The chorus, as usual, was excellent.

Penelope Freeh choreographed the spidery dances, and considerable credit should go to Doug Scholz-Carlson, whose choreography of the big fight scene looked surprisingly realistic with just a touch of the Sharks and the Jets from “West Side Story.”

 

Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.