Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette

The title page of the 1597 First Quarto edition of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reports that the tragedy had “been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely.” Three further editions appeared before the First Folio in 1623, a sign of the play’s continued popularity. Since the end of the Puritan Revolution, during which London’s theaters were closed, Shakespeare’s tragedy has remained more or less constantly before the public—if often in bowdlerized versions, some of them with happy endings.

The first operatic setting of the story based on Shakespeare’s version may have been that of Georg Benda. It was produced in Gotha in 1776 and played successfully on other German and Austrian stages for the following decades. During much of the 19th century the most celebrated libretto on the subject was that by Felice Romani, initially written for Nicola Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo, which was first performed in Milan in 1825. Five years later this text was reworked for the Venice premiere of Bellini’s take on the story, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Based on previous Italian works, operatic and theatrical, Romani’s version has little in common with Shakespeare.

The 19th century brought musical treatments in other genres as well, of which Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony” (1839) and Tchaikovsky’s overture-fantasia (1880) have proved the most durable. More recently we have had Prokofiev’s ballet (1938), Leonard Bernstein’s musical-theater adaptation West Side Story (1957), and a variety of cinematic versions.

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette was surely familiar to Charles Gounod (1818– 1893) when, following the 1864 premiere of his latest stage work, Mireille, he undertook an operatic setting of Shakespeare’s play for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. Gounod’s librettists, the prolific team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who had earlier adapted Goethe’s Faust to produce the composer’s greatest success, probably followed David Garrick’s version of the play’s ending, which had also served Berlioz: Romeo is still alive when Juliet awakens from Friar Laurence’s potion. Another element likely inspired by the precedent of Berlioz is Gounod’s harp-accompanied treatment of Shakespeare’s choral prologue.

Each transformation of Shakespeare’s play works out its own ordering of priorities among the various ingredients of revelry, passion, combat, piety, and sentimentality. And Gounod, surely aware of his particular strengths and weaknesses, chose to play down the elements of violence (whereas Prokofiev, among others, emphasized them, for both musical and choreographic reasons). Several of Shakespeare’s characters vanish altogether—even old Montague himself, not to mention the wives of the two feuding noblemen. The story, as Gounod tells it, is so strongly focused on the lovers that even Juliet’s fiancé, Paris, shrinks to little more than a walk-on. Benvolio retains so little identity that the role was usually cut altogether in Paris after 1916 (and occasionally at the Met). His few necessary lines were assigned to the page Stéphano, the only new character introduced by Barbier and Carré.

Gounod first composed Roméo et Juliette, as he had Faust, in the form of an “opéra dialogué”—that is, with spoken dialogue rather than recitative: “The audience’s musical attention should not be tired by the sound of chatter and padding; the audience should be afforded rests and pauses, except where the pathos of the work is at stake.” By the time of the premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique on April 27, 1867, however, he had been persuaded to provide recitatives. Despite the opera’s immediate success (a total of 89 performances in the first season, no doubt due in part to the Universal Exposition in Paris that year), the process of turning Roméo into a grand opera would continue over some two decades. Georges Bizet had a hand in the modifications for the move to the Opéra Comique in January 1873, as Gounod was in London at the time. When, after 291 performances at the Comique, Roméo was again transferred, this time to the Opéra, Gounod made still further changes, notably the addition of a wedding ballet and a big ensemble. The cast for this gala occasion, on November 28, 1888, included Adelina Patti (Juliette), Jean de Reszke (Roméo), Leon Melchissédec (Mercutio), and Edouard de Reszke (Friar Laurence), with the composer on the podium.

Later performances, including those at the Met in the 1920s and 1930s, tended to trim this elaborate form of the work, restoring the original focus on the four love duets. The first, “Ange adorable,” keeps the formality and content, if not the precise sonnet form, of the lovers’ first encounter in Shakespeare. It is followed by the tender Balcony Scene, the scene in Juliet’s bedchamber— initially solemn (“Nuit d’hymenée”) and then passionate (“Non, ce n’est pas le jour!”)—and the tragic tomb scene.

While Gounod avoids anything resembling a motivic scheme, the cello melody at the end of the prologue functions as a “star-crossed love” theme, repeated after Roméo departs for exile. Fragments and variations of it crop up at crucial points in the score: the choral phrase “Ah! Qu’elle est belle” on Juliette’s first entrance is echoed by Roméo after his first sight of her, and by a minor-mode version preceding his “Salut, tombeau” in the final scene. Indeed, much of the tomb scene is devoted to reminiscences of earlier passion and happiness.

Bach is easily recognized as one of the sources of Gounod’s style—not only in the churchly fugue that introduces Friar Laurence, but in the more vigorous one in the “Overture-Prologue” representing the feuding families. The powerful confrontation following Tybalt’s death is one of Gounod’s greatest scenes, with a solemn chorus recalling Mozart’s Idomeneo. The opening of the interlude known as “Juliette’s Slumber” looks very like a conservative gloss on the notorious first phrases of Wagner’s Tristan. But the opera’s central language is Gounod’s own blend of lyricism and passion. In the solos and duets of the two principals, and in the elegantly fanciful setting of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech, it has served to keep the opera fresh for 140 years.


David Hamilton