Since its first presentation on a London stage over four hundred years ago, the story of Romeo and Juliet has never left the world of theater. In the form of Shakespeare’s play or in later versions such as Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera, the tale of star-crossed lovers has all those elements needed for a successful romantic drama: passion, pathos, generational conflict, love both requited and un-, quick shifts in tone from tragic to comic, and the combination of confusion and misunderstanding that so often dooms young love. What was not consistent over the centuries is exactly how this famous tale has been told.
In post-Restoration London during the late 17th-century, the most popular version of Romeo and Juliet moved the story’s action to ancient Rome and had the star-crossed lovers be children of two competing Roman generals, Marius and Metellus. Even when a more faithful presentation was given by the great David Garrick in the middle of the 18th century, it was still common to end the play happily, with Romeo and Juliet surviving both deadly potions and prejudiced parents, or by omitting secondary character such as Rosaline, with whom Romeo is at first madly in love. Garrick’s naturalistic acting style and interest in original Shakespearean scripts did, however, prepare the ground for productions in the 19th century that would not be unfamiliar to audiences in the 21st. The New World also began to play a prime part, since it was two American sisters who gained cross-Atlantic attention when they acted the leads in successful productions starting in 1845. Charlotte Cushman, the older of the sisters, portrayed Romeo. She had earlier sung soprano rôles in opera – including the countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro – even though her voice was deep enough to perform credibly as a youthful male lover. Her sister Susan was Juliet. Both were young adults at the time – Charlotte in her 30s, Susan in her 20s – which reinforced the trend to get back to the original sense of the story as Shakespeare had first presented it. The Cushmans moved to London and had success in the play under Samuel Phelps’s management at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The drama was finally available again to European audiences in much the same form and characterization created by its most famous author over 250 years before.
How did Charles Gounod come to be interested in this sad tale, one that was so closely associated with the English-language stage even though the characters are nominally from the north of Italy? When Gounod was still a student, Hector Berlioz produced a programmatic choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette, in 1839. Berlioz had first seen the Shakespeare play in Garrick’s modified version, where Juliet and Romeo are both awake and aware during their final scene. Even before that, however, Vincenzo Bellini composed his I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which premiered at Venice in 1830. Bellini’s opera is a very different story. Its libretto by Felice Romani was drawn as much from Italian sources as from Shakespeare and was closer to the 17th- or 18th-century tradition of heavily modifying plot and character to suit current taste. The two ruling families were conceived in Renaissance terms as rival political and military factions, like Marius and Metellus in the Restoration London play, and Friar Laurence is made into a medical doctor, almost in the tradition of comic opera rather than tragic.
It was Gounod’s own work during the years after his success with Faust in 1859 that gives a better clue as to how he landed on the Shakespearean drama. In 1863 he took the work of the poet Frédéric Mistral and composed Mireille, a work little known today in any form yet popular during the late-19th century. (It was among the many works that would earn its author one of the first Nobel Prizes in Literature.) Mistral’s verses were composed in the Occitan language of southern France (Langue d’oc), and his text concerned two young lovers who were thwarted by a combination of ill fortune and parental disapproval. Gounod’s librettist was Michel Carré, with whom he had collaborated before and would again with Roméo et Juliette. Even in the 1860s, features of their adaptation of Mireille caused critics to complain that the opera was less than a credible drama. The peasant lovers are a mulberry-picker (the title character) and a basket-maker, Vincent. The latter is wounded by a trident-wielding rival who then dies while being ferried across a dark and mysterious Rhône by a Charon-like figure; yet the wounded Vincent survives. Mireille herself dies of exhaustion trying to come to the aid of her lover during a heat wave. Various other characters appear and reappear without making much sense dramatically.
Yet the story of Mireille, or “Mirèio” as it was in the original Occitan, does include a crew of young men in fierce competition with each other; and the two feuding fathers of Vincent and Mireille anticipate what Gounod and Carré would create when they tackled Shakespeare’s family tragedy only a few years later.