SFOpera - Potion or Poison: A Long-Neglected Scene Reclaims its Place

Potion or Poison: A Long-Neglected Scene Reclaims its Place

“Romeo, Romeo, Romeo!
Here’s drink—I drink to thee!”

So ends the dramatic soliloquy Shakespeare gives his heroine as she steels herself for downing Friar Lawrence’s potion to give her the “borrowed likeness of shrunk death.” The corresponding scene in Gounod’s opera is a challenging bravura aria, “Amour, ranime mon courage” (Love, revive my courage), in the fourth of the five acts. Until a few decades ago it had mostly been suppressed, and therein lies a tale.

Gounod’s first Juliette, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, was the wife of Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris where Roméo et Juliette premiered in 1867. She was at that point the composer’s “go-to” soprano, having already created the part of Marguerite in Faust (1859) and the title role of Mireille (1864). She had insisted on cuts in both, and did so again with Juliette. Backed by her impresario husband, she demanded that the difficult “Potion Aria” (more often, somewhat inaptly, called the “Poison Aria”) be dropped. Although it appeared in the original vocal score, it was not performed and disappeared from later editions as the work moved to the Opéra Comique in 1873 and finally the more prestigious Paris Opéra at the Palais Garnier in 1888.

In place of the Potion Aria, Gounod gave Madame Carvalho something more suited to her rather light lyric voice: the now-famous Act One waltz-song “Je veux vivre dans le rêve qui m’enivre” (I want to live in this intoxicating dream). This popular coloratura romp is a close cousin to the giddy showpiece “O légère hirondelle” (O graceful swallow) he had given her in Mireille. Thus Juliette’s virtuoso scene of mature and defiant determination late in the story was supplanted by a carefree expression of girlish delight near the beginning. Live performances of the Potion Aria were so scarce until recently that as late as 1990 Gounod biographer Steven Huebner declared it “rarely given today.” Its vocal demands are admittedly daunting, complete with two prominent high Cs.

Any soprano attempting the passionate Potion Aria must take care to reserve some energy for the subsequent Tomb Scene, with its transcendent final duet as the doomed lovers die together. (Unlike Shakespeare’s original, but mirroring some 18th-century revisions of the play, Gounod’s self-poisoned Romeo clings to life long enough for this duet to unfold as Juliet, victim of her own dagger, expires with him.)

The text of the scene, derived by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Victor Hugo’s French translation of the play, closely reflects Shakespeare’s structure, varying in only one minor respect at the outset: Gounod’s Juliette at first worries only that the potion will not work, not sharing the original Juliet’s initial suspicion that it might be a fatal poison. (Perhaps Friar Lawrence means for her to die before being forced into a sinful second marriage to Paris after already secretly marrying Romeo?)

That difference aside, Juliet in the play and Juliette in the opera then follow the same emotional path through the scene. They shake off their qualms about the potion and summon their courage, invoking the inspiration of love. But they succumb to momentary terror at the thought of awakening in the sepulcher long before Romeo—according to the Friar’s fatally flawed plan—arrives to whisk her away to freedom. In horror they both imagine the haunting ghost of cousin Tybalt whose gruesome fresh corpse, victim of Romeo’s revenge for the killing of his friend Mercutio, already lies entombed there. (Swirling scales in the orchestra underscore the singer’s agitation.) And they then rally their courage a second time, casting aside their fears. Juliet’s concluding “I drink to thee!” becomes Juliette’s “Je bois à toi!”

A century of famous Juliettes—from Nellie Melba to Mirella Freni—were content to leave the Potion Aria alone both on stage and in the recording studio, but with the 1984 EMI recording of the opera with Catherine Malfitano singing it, subsequent sopranos have mostly embraced the challenge. The first known performance of the scene at San Francisco Opera was in 1987, the last time the opera was given here, sung by longtime SFO favorite Ruth Ann Swenson, whose 25-year starring career on this stage earned her countless fans and the San Francisco Opera Medal. Patrons with a long memory will recall her triumphant execution of the role, aptly characterized by the New York Times, reviewing her subsequent performance of the opera at the Met, as “radiant, full and unforced.”

One of this season’s Juliettes, Nadine Sierra, has already wowed local audiences with her Potion Aria while still an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera Center during a concert in 2012. The San Francisco Chronicle declared “Sierra’s way with the French repertoire had infused … a vivid and breathtakingly sung account of [the aria]. This is a singer with enormous reserves of vocal power, along with the ability to calibrate it perfectly to the setting—her high notes were potently sustained but never shrill or overbearing.”

San Francisco Classical Voice agreed: “Sierra does not simply assume a pose or pretend to act; every vocal and facial expression, every move of her lithe body proclaims total involvement. Her sensational final high note, which seemed to go on forever, telegraphed triumph after triumph in the years ahead.”

In a recent interview Sierra described the challenges presented by the Potion Aria. “It’s Gounod kind of doing the same thing that Verdi did for Gilda or Violetta: allowing the audience to see, over two or three hours, a dramatic change within the character. The role of Juliette starts off rather light-ish and it just gets heavier after that. It can be like running a marathon. You have to pace yourself. But that is the fun of being an opera singer. The roles that we get to play still challenge us and push us to grow along with these characters.”

A prominent American conductor who frequently guests here, and who knows both Gounod’s opera and Sierra well, commented recently about the long-neglected Potion Aria: “It is high, sustained, and relentless, quite evocative of Juliette at such a desperate moment. And there have been very few sopranos who could handle it. A soprano like Nadine, of course, will have the opposite problem of many of her predecessors: she will have to work to make it look difficult!”

Clifford (Kip) Cranna is Dramaturg Emeritus of San Francisco Opera.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: An Introduction