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Roméo et Juliette

Spoleto Festival USA

At Gaillard Municipal Auditorium

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In Charleston, S.C. on Friday

Montreal-born tenor Frédéric Antoun is 29 years old and just out of school, but the kid can sure sing. His smouldering, heavy-lidded good looks are reminiscent of 1940s matinee idol Victor Mature, and he's got the muscles to look dishy in an undershirt. He can also act up a storm. In other words, Antoun is a total package, and he's the next great Canadian tenor on the world stage. The audience at the opening of Spoleto Festival USA's new (and bizarre) production of Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette went crazy for him.

The French repertoire is probably the most problematic to sing. The tenor, in particular, has to make the high money notes sweetly, without the bluster of Verdi and Puccini, but he also has to spin soft notes in mezzovoce with delicate care. The delivery is all about finesse and nuance, which is why great French tenors (and they don't have to be French) are to be treasured. It is a sound that is forceful and light at the same time.

Antoun has the romantic voice to fit the bill. When he shuts his eyes and pours himself into the poignant moments of Gounod's emotional score, one gets the sense of just how musical he is. He is also capable of a great outpouring of sound with thrilling ease. Sometimes he verges on singing a bit beneath pitch, but he's young. His is a glorious talent and companies are probably dusting off their French operas and beating a path to his door. (He's repeating Roméo in Opéra de Québec's upcoming season.)

His Juliette is Chicago-based soprano Nicole Cabell. She was the 2005 winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, the top prize for emerging opera talent. Cabell is tall and beautiful with a distinctive voice. Hers is a bright sound with bite. She also has the all-important middle and low notes that extend her repertoire possibilities beyond the chirper status. Her voice is gilded with a dusky overcoat that adds sensuality and gives sophisticated colour to her freshness. Her formidable coloratura placement is pitch perfect. Cabell's connection with text is also an actor's dream.

Opera companies around the world should kidnap conductor Tommaso Placidi. Italian-born and Swiss-based, Placidi makes Gounod's 1865 overly wrought music sound like the greatest opera ever written, achingly beautiful and intensely dramatic. The Spoleto orchestra is made up of young musicians culled from the best conservatories in the United States and the wannabe professionals play their hearts out for Placidi. It is the best-sounding orchestra I have heard in all my Spoleto years. Placidi reaches into Gounod and literally pulls out the heart strings.

The rest of the large, mostly American cast is quite strong. Particular standouts are baritone Brian Mulligan as Capulet, mezzo- soprano Christine Abraham as Stéphano, and Mexican bass Rosendo Flores as Frère Laurent. All are rich voice, charismatic singers. The resident Spoleto opera chorus is made up of students from the famed Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey and they sound smoothly divine. They even show some spark at acting.

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Which brings us to the production. The co-directors, Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil, are French, which means there is every danger of Eurotrash. Their vision is so over-the-top outrageous that it has the same fascination as a car accident -- horrible to see, but you can't take your eyes off it.

Judging by Carol Bailey's garish costumes, the opera is set in the 1960s. Clearly Roméo is Jack the Lad with his pimpish lavender-pink suit and rakish blue fedora. His undershirt is actually turquoise. Juliette wears only white to show her innocence, from ball gown to chemise, none of which is particularly fashionable. This adds to her awkward vulnerability.

Her father, Capulet, runs a funeral home with mafia overtones. Symbolism of death abounds. The stage is littered with mortuary floral tributes and oversized religious graveyard statuary. In fact, Roméo and Juliette's wedding night bed is the base of a gravestone. When Juliette collapses at her wedding to Paris (Stephen Gaertner), she is placed on a gurney.

Bailey's set comprises of claustrophobic grey walls relieved only by a monstrous lattice grille, all of which reconfigure to create shifting playing areas. The exciting fight between Tybalt (Victor Ryan Robertson), Mercutio (Kevin Greenlaw) and Roméo takes place in the parking lot of the funeral home's service entrance, replete with a hearse, and ogled by the mortuary workers.

Benvolio (Mark Schowalter) is an embalmer and the Shakespearean scientific inquiry of Friar Laurence has been morphed into a fascination with dead bodies. Even McDonald's makes an appearance. Roméo enjoys a milkshake under Juliette's balcony before her entrance.

Clever, certainly. Outlandish, definitely. Overkill, obviously. Compelling, absolutely.

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Spoleto USA's Roméo and Juliette continues in Charleston until

June 9.

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