Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated romance is an eternal story if there ever was one, and Opera Carolina has a special reason for turning to it now: This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and the company will commemorate it by staging Charles Gounod’s operatic version of the English icon’s best-known play.

Opera Carolina is treating Gounod’s “Romeo & Juliet” to a new production it will unveil Jan. 24 at the Belk Theater. With sets and costumes designed by Bernard Uzan, a frequent Opera Carolina guest who will also direct, this will be a “beautiful, traditional” incarnation of the tale and its setting in long-ago Verona, says James Meena, the company’s general director.

Familiar though the tragic saga is, Gounod’s “Romeo” doesn’t rank amid the likes of “La Boheme” and “Aida” on the operatic hit parade. So here’s a look at this feast of melody.

New to opera? 3 reasons to try this one:

▪ Shakespeare in French: To add music’s magic to Shakespeare’s, Gounod and his collaborators pared down the play to its essentials and – because they were working for a Paris theater – replaced English with French. “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” became “O Roméo, pourquoi ce nom est-il le tien?” Though much of Shakespeare’s poetry had to go, Gounod added his seductive and powerful music – potentially a plus, Meena says, for viewers who struggle with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English.

“The advantage of the opera is that it has the music to express all these beautiful emotions,” Meena says. “It becomes easier to follow in its operatic form. It’s one of those really perfect operas for first-time operagoers – and also for people who love beautiful singing.”

▪ Songs of love: What could better suit the run-up to Valentine’s Day than an opera with four love duets? They’re the milestones of the sweethearts’ story.

The couple’s meeting unfolds to graceful music whose lilt embraces Romeo’s flirtation as well as Juliet’s hesitation. In the balcony scene, their voices surge with their first avowals of love. On their wedding night, Juliet forgives Romeo for killing her relative Tybalt in a street brawl, then the music surges as the couple savors their brief togetherness before Romeo leaves for exile. And the passion and desperation reach fever pitch in the soaring lines of the tomb-scene duet.

▪ Tinkering with Shakespeare: Lovers of Shakespeare must be wondering: How can the tomb scene have a duet? In the play, Romeo takes poison and dies before Juliet awakens from the potion that mimics death. Well, Gounod and company have changed that. In their version, Juliet comes to before Romeo’s poison takes hold. He’s so excited to see her alive that he forgets what he has done, and the couple sing rapturously of fleeing together. When reality breaks in, Juliet resolves to join Romeo in death, exclaiming “O happy dagger” – or rather, “Ah! Fortuné poignard.”

Admittedly, Meena says, the lovers’ melodious, simultaneous demise lacks the stark power of their separate deaths in Shakespeare. He thinks Gounod wanted to supply what Parisian audiences demanded: “We’re talking about lyricism. We’re talking about beauty. We’re talking about elegance,” Meena says. “It’s still tragic. It’s just different.”

Know your way around? 3 aspects to eye:

▪ Delicacy and drama: The four love duets are the story’s landmarks, but they hardly supply the music’s only allure. The opening scene contains the opera’s best-known number: the sparkling waltz in which Juliet savors the joys of youth. Romeo’s friend Mercutio sings a quicksilver salute to Queen Mab, conjurer of dreams. Romeo’s aria launches the balcony scene, and his voice vaults heavenward as he likens Juliet’s beauty to the sun outshining the stars.

The opera’s peak of intensity comes in the street scene. It begins breezily as Romeo’s page Stephano, a composite of servants in the play, sings a ditty taunting the hated Capulet clan, Juliet’s family. When the swordfight breaks out, the music explodes as Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt. Then the townspeople’s voices well up in horror. “The sword fight scene is exciting,” Meena says. “But then you’ve got the chorus, which is like a Greek chorus, commenting on the woe of the day. … The choral writing in particular is exquisite.”

▪ Juliet’s emotional trajectory: Opera Carolina’s Juliet, Canadian soprano Marie-Eve Munger, will perform a stirring aria for Juliet that generations of her predecessors omitted. Nicknamed the Potion Aria, Juliet sings it after Friar Laurence gives her the elixir that will make her appear dead until Romeo comes to free her from her tomb.

At first, she fears that the mixture will do nothing, and she’ll be forced to marry Paris as the dead Tybalt wished; she stashes a dagger in her clothing to save her from that. Then a vision terrifies her: She imagines awakening in the tomb next to Tybalt’s corpse. But she resolves to go ahead, calling on love to give her strength.

“It’s critical to the character that we see her make that choice,” Meena says. “That way, we see Juliet through her entire progress as a character… She starts as an innocent girl being presented at her coming-out party, and finally she makes this choice of taking the potion to be with her husband. She’s really the only person who makes a progression during the story. She’s the one who grows and matures – very quickly.”

▪ Two age-old stories: “Romeo and Juliet,” premiered in 1867, gave Gounod the greatest success of his lifetime. But his “Faust,” based on the German legend of the scientist who sells his soul to the devil, gets more performances today. Meena thinks the hindrance with “Romeo” may lie between the big numbers, when the story advances via sung dialogue in French. To keep those passages from bogging down, Meena, who will conduct, and director Uzan are urging the cast to make the words as colorful and alive as speech. But Meena has a role to play, too.

“A lot of it’s on me, quite honestly,” he says, “to make sure the piece is paced properly, and doesn’t turn into some kind of lugubrious glue.”

‘ROMEO AND JULIET’

When: 2 p.m. Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 8 p.m. Jan. 30.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $19-$150.

Details: 704-372-1000www.operacarolina.org.

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article54744415.html#storylink=cpy