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You know you're in for a long night at the opera when the prima donna can't sing. 

You know you're in for a long night at the opera when:

A) The hero's dressed as Kevin Federline.

B) The prima donna can't sing.

C) The choreography doesn't match the dialogue.

D) All of the above.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh Opera's production of Charles Gounod's Romeo & Juliet is an unequivocal D -- depressing, desperate and de ... Oh, cripes, it sucks!

What a letdown from the fabulous season-opener, Pagliacci. One's tempted to make a Brittany Spears joke: The company has made an "Oops!" and we can only hope it won't do it again.

The only saving graces of this fiasco are spirited orchestral playing, conducted by Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, and spot-on choral work. Otherwise: Ouch.

Let's start with the sets and stage direction, by Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil. The scene of the famous Shakespearean tragedy is re-imagined as a David Lynchian funeral parlor. It's a bold approach and might help make sense of Gounod's death-obsessed music. However, it leaves the Montague-Capulet feud completely unexplained -- rival funeral parlors? In our stage directors' hands, the Montagues are postmodern street toughs with outfits stolen from Goodwill who are pestering the Capulets, a family of well-to-do morticians.

That doesn't even make symbolic sense!

And would someone please explain why Romeo is dressed as K-Fed? As acceptable a job as tenor Massimo Giordano does singing the role, it's just impossible to feel sympathy for Brittany's former back-up dancer and soon-to-be-ex-husband.

Still, I could live with that if it weren't for Hillary Spector's ridiculous choreography. One wonders if she's even read the libretto. During the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet sing about holding each other's hands and how hard it is to let go, BUT THEY HAVEN'T HELD HANDS YET.

OK. Opening-night jitters, you say. Then explain the climatic fight choreography between Mercutio and Tybalt. Not only do the two roll around on the floor like Robert Urich in a bad TV movie of the week, and clutch at each other more like people making out; but after Mercutio is stabbed (oh so dramatically, with a scalpel Tybalt just happened to have in his pocket) Mercutio berates Romeo for getting in between the two fighters -- YET ROMEO WASN'T ANYWHERE NEAR THE TWO.

Come on, Hillary! Throw me a freakin' bone here!

I also love how after Romeo receives the shattering news that Juliet is a Capulet and his mortal enemy, he stumbles into the next scene holding a fast-food soda. I guess during the interlude he was thinking Arby's.

Still, all this might be tolerable if it weren't for the cat-screech "singing" of our Juliet, soprano Lyubov Petrova. In her lower register, she's at best unremarkable, at worst boringly plain. In her higher register -- your ears will bleed, your eyeglasses will crack and your heart will freeze. She was no good in last year's Ariadne auf Naxos; one wonders why the opera brought her back in an even bigger role.

While not nearly as cringe-inducing vocally, Craig Verm's Mercutio is badly in need of an actor's studio. Sure, the part is inherently flamboyant, but in Verm's hands it's hammy and -- what's worse -- about as funny as a Full House rerun. Most of the time his goofy grin just seems to signify, "These are the jokes, people."

Oh, Pittsburgh Opera, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied? I know you dropped a lot of cash on a freaky stage production and a trio of stooges to direct the thing. Next time couldn't you just hire good singers and have them go at it on a blank stage?

Frills and chills are nice. But one goes to the opera to hear great voices. Period.

Pittsburgh Opera presents Romeo & Juliet 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 17, and 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 19. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666

click to enlarge A plague on both their houses: Lyubov Petrova (left) and Massimo Giordano star in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: David Bachman.
  • A plague on both their houses: Lyubov Petrova (left) and Massimo Giordano star in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: David Bachman.

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