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.
At least 27 operas have been based on Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET, the best known of which is Gounod's 1867 Roméo et Juliette (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré), a critical triumph when first performed and frequently revived today. The earliest, ROMEO UND JULIE in 1776, a Singspiel by Georg Benda, omits much of the action of the play and most of its characters, and has a happy ending. It is occasionally revived. Bellini's I CAPULETI ED I MONTECCHI is also revived from time to time, but has sometimes been judged unfavourably because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare; however, Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, worked from Italian sources — principally Romani's libretto for an opera by Nicola Vaccai, ROMEO E GIULIETTA — rather than directly adapting Shakespeare's play. Among later operas there is Heinrich Sutermeister's 1940 work ROMEO UND JULIA.
ROMÉO ET JULIETTE by Berlioz is a "symphonie dramatique", a large-scale work in three parts for mixed voices, chorus and orchestra, which premiered in 1839.
And it would be shame to leave the subject without mentioning the most famous musical theatre adaptation: WEST SIDE STORY with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It débuted on Broadway in 1957 and in the West End in 1958, and became a popular film in 1961. This version updated the setting to mid-20th-century New York City, and the warring families to ethnic gangs.
Come see and hear this timeless tragedy so beautifully rendered.
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.
"Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, in which the composer is always pleasing . . . might be described as the powerful drama of Romeo and Juliet reduced to the proportions of an eclogue for Juliet and Romeo. One remembers the work as a series of very pretty duets, varied by a sparkling waltz air for Juliet, in which Madame Patti displays that tragic genius, which belongs to her equally, with the highest capacity for comedy."
The reviewer was Sutherland Edwards, music critic of the St. James's Gazette
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ROMÉO ET JULIETTE TRIVIA: Not long after it's April 1867 premiere in Paris, the opera was first seen in London in Italian (with celebrated singers Adelina Patti and Mario (Giovanni Matteo de Candia)) in July 1867 and in New York (with Minnie Hauk) at the Academy of Music on 15 November of that year.
It entered the repertoire of the Opéra Comique in 1873 in a reworked version with recitatives (by Georges Bizet). Adelina Patti again took up the role of Juliette, this time with Jean de Reszke as Roméo. It transferred to the Opéra de Paris in 1888, in a version that was further reworked with the addition of a ballet.
Come hear for yourself why this opera has withstood the test of time
Prior to the premiere, there were difficulties in casting the lead tenor, and Gounod was said to have composed the last act twice, but after the public general rehearsal and first night (April 27, 1867 at the Théâtre-Lyrique), it was hailed as a major success for the composer.
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Charles Gounod's first significant success came with the premiere of FAUST in 1859. A second rousing success came with ROMÉO ET JULIETTE at the Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet on 27 April 1867 at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Its success was aided by the presence of international dignitaries in Paris for the Exhibition, several of whom attended performances.
Come hear for yourself the gorgeous duets and waltz song that made Gounod's opera a critical success!
The composer of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE was a devout Catholic and composed a considerable body of church music: 20 masses (including the St. Cecilia Mass (whose composition marks Gounod's recognition as a noteworthy composer) and several funereal masses, including 2 Requiems), and many motets. His Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach is among his most famous compositions.
Composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was the son of a talented painter, François-Louis Gounod (winner of the 2nd Prix de Rome in painting in 1783) and a pianist, Victoire Lamachois who was his first piano teacher.
The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is best known for three works: his "Ave Maria" based on a work by Bach, the opera FAUST and the opera ROMÉO ET JULIETTE.