Roméo et Juliette

Charles Gounod and Roméo et Juliette

Gounod the man was the essential French romantic: at turns religious, overly sensitive, hyper-emotional, sensuous and passionate. In his early years he would often get so excited about music or the arts that he’d collapse in a delirium, and even in his later years he was prone to psychosomatic ailments. But it was exactly this combination of elements that made him not only a man of his time but an extraordinarily successful composer at the height of the Second Empire. At the zenith of his career, no other French composer was able to match him, and with Faust, which appeared in 1859, he set the standard for French opera through the rest of the 19th century influencing younger composers like Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Massenet. Faust did have a rather torturous journey to the stage: another theatre in the city was planning a theatrical spectacle based on the same subject at virtually the same time, something that frightened both the director of the Paris Opéra as well as Leon Carvalho, the intendant at the Théâtre Lyrique who originally commissioned the work. When the ‘other’ Faust was postponed, Carvalho regained his courage and produced the opera. But even the larger music publishers (Colombier, Heugel and Escudier) refused to touch the work, leaving it to the smaller house of Antoine Choudens who marketed the work to smaller opera houses throughout France and Germany. When Faust became the huge success that it is, Choudens (and Gounod’s!) future was assured and it became one of the most important music publishing houses in Europe.

Four Gounod operas followed Faust in succession (Philémon et Baucis, 1860, La colombe, an opéra comique, 1860, La reine de Saba, 1862, and Mireielle, 1864), but none of them had much success. Mireielle and Philémon were more successful in revival a few years (and not-so-few revisions) later. Yet even through these years of relative operatic failure, Gounod was still considered the leading French composer of opera. He showed interest in an operatic version of Roméo et Juliette in 1864 and turned to Jules Barbier and Michel-Florentin Carré, the masters of the mid-19th century French opera libretto, to set the verses (the composer also had an earlier encounter with the story of Romeo and Juliet; as a young student he was present at a rehearsal of Berlioz’ dramatic symphony on the same subject and was greatly moved, vowing even then to eventually write an opera). They in turn used the original Shakespeare play for their inspiration (see the next article, The Libretto and Source of Roméo et Juliette). Gounod returned to Provence, the coastal town of St.-Raphaël, where he had spent time previously working on Mireielle at the invitation of the poet Mistral. Here, between April and July of 1865, he worked sporadically on the score, being afflicted by the nervous illness that often disturbed his work during this period. The Mediterranean climate must have done him some good, as the entire opera was sketched out by mid-summer and within a year the work was ready for production. Again, Leon Carvalho produced the work at the Lyrique, happily providing his wife, the soprano Marie Caroline Carvalho, for the role of Juliette. She was not, however, able to sing the dramatic “Amour ranime mon courage”, Juliette’s ‘poison’ aria at the end of the opera; so the composer provided “Je veux vivre”, Juliette’s waltz for the first act at the last moment, something that sopranos ever since have been thanking him for. (In past years, “Amour” has been cut from the opera to allow lighter sopranos to sing the entire role. Sopranos who can master both the lightness of the waltz and the dramatic heft of the poison aria are far and few between!)

To understand the success of the opera for Gounod one must realize that the Exposition Universelle of 1867 opened in April that year, attracting 9.2 million visitors to the French capitol. This was a godsend to the Théâtre Lyrique and Carvalho’s production, making Roméo et Juliette Gounod’s most immediate success. The opera played to sold-out houses night after night. Based on its success in Paris, it traveled to all the major opera centers in Europe before coming back and becoming a staple at the Opéra Comique and, finally, the Paris Opéra in 1888. It is still today a staple of the French operatic repertoire.

The Libretto and Source for Roméo et Juliette

The obvious source for Gounod’s opera is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first performed in the early 1590s. But Shakespeare had his own sources, of course. Most immediately it was Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562, a work that had some popularity in England at the time. Elements of the story come, of course, from Italy: Il Novellino, 1476, by Masucchio and Luigi da Porto’s Istoria novellamenta ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (“Newly discovered history of two noble lovers”). The Istoria is essentially the story as we know it from Shakespeare but with a slightly different ending. The families are named Montecchi and Capuletti, all of the major characters are present and accounted for, and the whole plot pivots on the sleeping potion that Juliet takes to mimic death. In the tomb scene, however, Juliet awakes before Romeo dies so that they have a few tender moments together (unlike in the Shakespeare in which Romeo is already dead a few moments before Juliet recovers). Interestingly, da Porto has Friar Lorenzo (Laurence) appear to try to convince Juliet to enter a convent; she responds by holding her breath until she expires!

Gounod’s librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, had extensive experience in opera. They collaborated on scores of operas, most significantly on Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. It’s not known which French translation of the Shakespeare they used as a basis for their libretto for Roméo (some point to Victor Hugo’s translation), but they were sensitive enough to borrow phrases and allusions from the original to give their poem an authentic ring; “He jests at scars that never felt a wound…what light through yonder window breaks?...parting is such sweet sorrow…a plague on both your houses”, all find French equivalents in the libretto. Gounod loved the progression of the acts, from the Capulet’s party and the lovers’ first meeting to the tender balcony scene, the violent confrontation between the families, the grandiosity of the wedding and the tragic finale. Although the five act structure was de rigeur for French theatres at the time, it happened to coincide with the dramatic structure of the original Shakespeare (Freytag’s Pyramid of exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/dénouement). Of the many operas based on Shakespeare’s plays, thanks to Carré and Barbier’s libretto, Gounod’s opera is among those that come closest to being true to the letter and spirit of the original.

The Music of Roméo et Juliette

For a time Gounod had intended Roméo et Juliette to be an opéra-comique with spoken dialogue. It wasn’t until he was well into the rehearsal process that he decided to write recitatives to make it more like the grand opera that was being produced by the Paris Opéra. One can easily see this by virtue of the fact that the opera is essentially a ‘number’ opera with set- pieces…arias, duets and other ensembles…that can stand alone. Just listing the numbers will show this: the prologue, the opening chorus at the ball, the Ballade of Queen Mab, Juliet’s waltz, the madrigal duet “Ange adorable”…and this is only Act One! It would not do great violence to the opera to remove the recitatives and replace them with dialogue, but there is something subtler given to the opera with the addition of the musical ‘glue’ that recitatives provide, and that is artistic unity. This unity gives the opera a sense of constant movement and continual growth of the dramatic situation as well as the arc of the characters. One wouldn’t want to see any of the recitative in Roméo disappear as it adds to that mercurial sense of direction that all operas must have.

Gounod was a gifted melodist with nothing to apologize for. The tunes from this opera may not be as familiar to us as those from Faust or Carmen, but they are just as striking and eminently memorable. The main tune to Roméo’s romance, “Ah, lêve-toi soleil” is a soaring example, as are the main melodic motives in all four of the love duets. It took a bit of courage to include so many duets for the main characters, both from the standpoint of the audience (French audiences were notorious for boring easily) and casting (the tenors and sopranos who tackled the roles of the young lovers), seeing as how singers would surely think immediately how stressful the singing of four cumulative duets could be. But these four pieces are marvelous in their approach to the drama giving us a glimpse into the growth, not only of the characters, but of their relationship.

The composer of Roméo approaches the orchestra in much the same way as other French Romantic composers of the day: light and at times brilliant textures that still allow the voice to shine through, sparing use of brass, counter-themes played by woodwind instruments in order to give interest to primary melodic material, judicious use of harp and percussion (“special effects”) and emphasis on the constant shifting of colors in order to keep the audience’s ear attentive and interested. If Gounod is not quite as sensitive to text as Verdi and his compatriots, he is certainly as attentive to the sonic environment required of every composer to create the impression of a world realistically re-created for the stage. Night is no more beautifully described than in the introductory music and final pages of the balcony scene (Act II), and the Capulet’s masked ball sparkles with rhythmic allusions to dance. Overall the music is a wonderful foil for the story and provides the atmosphere that an operatic treatment of Shakespeare demands.

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