SFOpera - Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: An Introduction

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: An Introduction

By 1867 Napoleon III’s Second Empire seemed to be approaching the glorious new future he had promised. Paris had been rebuilt by the indefatigable Baron Haussmann with grand new boulevards lined with trees and handsome buildings, the low-rise Paris that we know today. The impact of accumulated wealth was everywhere to be seen—in fine new city residences, in glamorous fashions, in the flourishing spas of Europe where the great and the good took their summer vacations, and in the fast-growing reputation of Paris as the city of gaiety and pleasure. Despite the Emperor’s dubious legitimacy, or more probably because of it, he liked to hobnob with the hereditary monarchs of Europe, and to show off his beautiful city and his beautiful wife. The 1867 Exposition Universelle was planned to draw the attention of the world to the glories of French commerce and culture, and to attract the possessors of curiosity, wealth, or titles in great numbers. In great numbers they came, and with an official opening on April 1 the city put on its best show.

Eiffel built not a tower—that would come later—but a splendid iron and glass pavilion on the Champs-Élysées, with hydraulic elevators carrying visitors up to the roof. The Bateaux Mouches began their popular sightseeing trips down the Seine. Nadar, the photographer, took twelve tourists at a time up in his double-decker balloon. A large-scale model of the soon-to-be-opened Suez Canal was shown, complete with ships passing through it. From Vienna the younger Johann Strauss brought a new waltz called The Blue Danube. The Japanese exhibit proved to be very popular, leading to a craze for japonoiserie. The United States exhibited surgical instruments and artificial limbs, while Victorian England sent biblical tracts, agricultural implements, and a school.


The three opera houses all had something special to offer. The magnificent new Opéra, the Palais Garnier, was still only half finished, so in their old building in the Rue Le Peletier they mounted Verdi’s Don Carlos after a protracted rehearsal period which drove the fastidious composer to distraction. The opera received forty-three performances but was not considered a success, maybe because there were two or three major rivals for all that applause: the Opéra-Comique had a hit from the previous year, Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon playing to packed houses, while at the Théâtre-Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet Gounod followed up his Goethe hit (Faust) with a Shakespeare hit (Roméo et Juliette) which opened on April 27 and achieved 322 performances in its first six-year run. But none of these could compete with Offenbach at the Théâtre des Variétés, where his La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and his star, Hortense Schneider, were the sensation of the season.

But while Offenbach’s successes came and went with dazzling frequency, Gounod’s success had a continuous future ahead. Within months it was to be heard in cities all over Europe and in New York too. It passed in 1873, after the demise of the Théâtre-Lyrique, to the Opéra-Comique, and from there to the larger stage of the Opéra in 1888. Gounod never believed in definitive forms of his opera, recognizing that different audiences require different levels of sophistication. Roméo et Juliette thus survives in many different forms, which can be adjusted depending on the singers, the stage direction, and the public.

The critic Ernest Newman, who knew a lot about opera, used to say that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was not very suitable for the operatic stage, despite constant attempts by composers of all ages to fashion that great play into an opera. His argument was that the two lovers don’t change much during the course of the action, whereas circumstances, to which they are completely in thrall, do. When it comes to Gounod’s beautifully lyrical version, that argument looks distinctly weak, since the mood in which the lovers meet their death in the last scene is completely different musically and emotionally from the tender, polite “Madrigal” which they sing to each other when they first meet, both still ignorant of who the other is.

The lovers are very young, of course. Shakespeare gave Juliet a tender thirteen years; Gounod’s librettists presumed something a little older, but in any case teenagers grow faster than adults, as we all know, especially if they are dealt the extraordinary thunderbolt which strikes both children down in the first act when they catch sight of each other for the first time. There is no more celebrated case of love at first sight than this, and in the course of their four duets this is transformed into a passion of real tenderness and depth. Juliet’s response to Friar Lawrence in Act Four, when he offers her the potion that will bring about the semblance of death, is stark and fearful, more for the thought of failure (which would force her to marry Paris) than from the simulacrum of death that she will have to undergo.

Gounod’s original Juliet was Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, who was nearly forty when Roméo et Juliette was first heard. She had already created two famous Gounod roles—Marguerite (in Faust) and Mireille—and she was celebrated for her magnificent coloratura. Gounod could not possibly deny her the chance to show off such talent, so he composed the “Valse-Ariette” in Act One (a sequel to the Jewel Song in Faust) expressly for her voice. It was inevitably the hit of the show. Alas, she was not up to the dramatic demands of the final scenes, but since she was married to the director of the theater, no one was in a position to complain.

Events in Verona move rapidly too. Civil strife in the streets is not represented with a colossal brawl in the manner of Wagner’s Meistersinger (premiered a few months later than Roméo et Juliette), since Gounod was not writing for a major stage. But it is felt in the tension between the families, especially when a few snide exchanges between Romeo’s page, Stephano (a nice trouser role for a soprano), and Gregorio lead to drawn swords, pulling first Mercutio, then Tybalt, then Romeo into the fray. In no time at all both Mercutio and Tybalt are dead, and Romeo’s circumstances, already untenable because of his secret marriage to Tybalt’s cousin, force on him the desperate action that leads to the tragic dénouement.

The ending is not Shakespeare’s ending, for the families are not reconciled, nor does Friar Lawrence have an opportunity to explain his unhappy part in the lovers’ fate. These were changes made originally in London in the eighteenth century, and they remained in tune with the Romantic taste for stark tragic endings. Also, in the vault scene Juliet wakes from her false death before the poison has done its work. So Romeo is still alive, and they thus sing one more duet, this time fragmented and doomed while their themes pile up in the orchestra. Juliet stabs herself, and their last words are a prayer to heaven for forgiveness. Gounod’s piety has the last word.

These adjustments to Shakespeare’s action are also found in Berlioz’s choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, which was the last music Gounod heard in Paris in 1839 before leaving for Rome as winner of the annual Prix de Rome. He was twenty-one, and he remembered the work vividly. He paid tribute to Berlioz at the start of the opera when the chorus interrupts the overture to set the scene in a type of choral recitative that had only ever been heard before in the introduction to Berlioz’s work: “Vérone vit jadis deux familles rivales, les Montaigus, les Capulets.”

Being true to Shakespeare was in any case not the top priority of Gounod’s librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who were not afraid a year later to give Hamlet a happy ending in their libretto for Thomas. With Faust, Mignon, Roméo et Juliette, and Hamlet they transformed Goethe and Shakespeare for the genre of opera as it was understood in their time.

When Roméo et Juliette moved up to the Opéra-Comique, Gounod was in London entangled in legal and matrimonial problems that forced him to enlist Bizet to carry out the revisions that were needed. Then later, for the grander stage of the Paris Opéra, Gounod had to supply a ballet, as he also had to do for Faust. Even without the ballet (which Shakespeare’s dramaturgy scarcely requires) there is a remarkable variety of musical types in the score, from Mercutios’s enchanting song about Queen Mab to the brilliant build-up of violence as the finale to Act Three. The story is eternal, of course, assisted by the great creative minds that have transformed and adapted it for every medium and every age. Gounod’s music struck a chord with Second Empire Paris, and it can still stir us deeply today.

Hugh Macdonald is general editor of Hector Berlioz: New Edition of the Complete Works and author of several entries within The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

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