Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette premiered in April of 1867 at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique. The composer collaborated with the same pair of librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, he had worked with several years earlier on what would eventually prove to be his most enduring work, Faust. Although their new opera yielded a mere one “hit song,” Juliette’s waltz Je veux vivre in Act I, the Lyrique’s production was popular enough that they ran their initial staging for nearly a hundred nights. Productions in other cities soon followed, including London that same summer. The latter staging featured Adelina Patti and Giovanni Mario in the title roles when those two were the most celebrated soprano-and-tenor combination in all of opera. At the Paris premiere, however, the plum role of Juliette went to Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvallho. She had created major Gounod roles as Marguerite (in Faust) and the title in Mireille. There wasn’t much doubt of her gaining another new role since she was then married to the Théâtre Lyrique’s own director, Léon Carvalho.
Unlike Shakespeare’s play that had so long been a hit with audiences, the Gounod-Barbier-Carré operatic approach to a story of star-crossed love focuses more narrowly on the two principals. Critics noted from the opening night that it was all about their passions. Feuding families of Capulets and Montagues are on view, but they are almost a side-show to what really matters: how and why two young people fall for each other so strongly. The opera includes four lengthy duets for them, twice the more typical number seen on operatic stages of the 19th century; and its highlight may be the Act IV duet of the principals as they enjoy their Nuit d’hyménée (“Marriage-bed night”). Gounod’s music in these scenes features a sensuality that had never been heard before on the stage of a Paris theater: it shines with chromaticism even as the two lovers move their voices in strict parallel sixths or in gradually rising keys, a technique that the composer had used to great effect in Faust.
A lengthy review of the London premiere in Watson’s Art Journal announced that Roméo et Juliette was “a genuine success” and referred positively to the fact that it was still running in Paris even as it opened at Covent Garden. Watson’s reviewer (signed as “HM”) praised the “simplicity of the plot” which “made the hero and heroine conspicuous by toning down the others.” He noted how the librettists’ one seemingly-invented character, the page Stéphano (sung as a “pants” role by a soprano), was based on the servant Balthasar from Shakespeare’s play, while some of the original characters are there still but much reduced in importance, such as Nurse (“Gertrude” in the opera). He also dwells at length on scenes in the opera during which characters are “heterogeneously jumbled together … upon the principles of Richard Wagner, but more melodiously carried out than anything in Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, or Tristan und Isolde.” We may wonder how this same reviewer, if he had the opportunity and lived long enough, reacted to the later Ring or Parsifal.
Watson’s journal also notes that the music for Juliette had been pitched for the “exceptionally high voice of Miolan-Carvalho” and that Adelina Patti had taken some of it down a full tone lower. This alteration by Patti presaged many changes, and many cuts, that would be made in Gounod’s opera’s during the 19th-century and beyond. Such cuts – often affecting orchestration as well as the vocal parts – have resulted in a kind of uncertainty about just what the complete opera is or ought to be.
Watson’s reviewer also noted – and we wonder if he attended more than one night – that “Signor Mario” had sung well and was “an ideal Roméo … in spite of a cold and hoarseness for which a printed apology had been circulated in the theatre on Saturday.” Thus ever in the often-fragile world of great singing.
Vincenzo Bellini very different version of this same story, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, enjoyed a modest revival during the period of renewed interest in Bel Canto singing that followed World War II. Perhaps in the 21st-century, an era when audiences may be seeking renewed definitions for love and new relevance for passion in the aftermath of extreme social changes, listeners will find that Gounod’s long explications sung by his two young leads will take on a refreshing power.