Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Romeo and Juliet (Gounod) - Synopsis
Romeo and Juliet -
(Original French title: Roméo et Juliette)
An Opera by Charles Gounod
Opera in five acts, by Gounod; words by Barbier and Carré, after the tragedy by Shakespeare. Produced Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, April 27, 1867; January, 1873, taken over the Opéra Comique; Grand Opéra, November 28, 1888. London, Covent Garden, in Italian, July 11, 1867. New York, Academy of Music, November 15, 1867, with Minnie Hauck as Juliet; Metropolitan Opera House, December 14, 1891, with Eames (Juliet), Jean de Reszke (Romeo), Edouard de Reszke (Friar Lawrence). Chicago, December 15, 1916, with Muratore as Romeo and Galli-Curci as Juliet.
THE DUKE OF VERONA
JULIET, his daughter
GERTRUDE, her nurse
TYBALT, Capulets nephew
ROMEO, a Montague
BENVOLIO, Romeos page
GREGORY, a Capulet retainer
Nobles and ladies of Verona, citizens, soldiers, monks, and pages.
Time: 14th century.
Having gone to Goethe for "Faust," Gounods librettists, Barbier and Carré, went to Shakespeare for "Roméo et Juliette," which, like "Faust," reached the Paris Grand Opéra by way of the Théâtre Lyrique. Mme. Miolan-Carvalho, the original Marguerite, also created Juliette.
"Roméo et Juliette" has been esteemed more highly in France than elsewhere. In America, save for performances in New Orleans, it was only during the Grau regime at the Metropolitan Opera House, when it was given in French with casts familiar with the traditions of the Grand Opéra, that it can be said regularly to have held a place in the repertoire. Eames is remembered as a singularly beautiful Juliette, vocally and personally; Capoul, Jean de Reszke,and Saleza, as Romeos, Edouard de Reszke as Frère Laurent.
Nicolini, who became Adelina Pattis second husband, sang Roméo at the Grand Opéra to her Juliette. She was then the Marguerite de Caux, her marriage to the Marquis having been brought about by the Empress Eugénie. But that this marriage was not to last long, and that the Romeo and Juliet were as much in love with each other in actual life as on the stage, was revealed one night to a Grand Opéra audience, when, during the balcony scene, prima donna and tenor -- so the record says -- imprinted twenty-nine real kisses on each others lips.
The libretto is in five acts and follows closely, often even to the text, Shakespeares tragedy. There is a prologue in which the characters and chorus briefly rehearse the story that is to unfold itself.
Act I. The grand hall in the palace of the Capulets. A fête is in progress. The chorus sings gay measures. Tybalt speaks to Paris of Juliet, who at that moment appears with her father. Capulet bids the guests welcome and to be of good cheer -- "Soyez les bienvenus, amis" (Be ye welcome, friends), and "Allons! jeunes gens! Allons! belles dames!" (Bestir ye, young nobles! And ye, too, fair ladies!).
Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, and half-a-dozen followers come masked. Despite the deadly feud between the two houses, they, Montagues, have ventured to come as maskers to the fête of the Capulets. Mercutio sings of Queen Mab, a number as gossamerlike in the opera as the monologue is in the play; hardly ever sung as it should be, because the role of Mercutio rarely is assigned to a baritone capable of doing justice to the airy measures of "Mab, la reine des mensonges" (Mab, Queen Mab, the fairies widwife).
The Montagues withdraw to another part of the palace. Juliet returns with Gertrude, her nurse. Full of high spirits, she sings the graceful and animated waltz, "Dans ce reve, que menivre" (Fair is the tender dream of youth). The nurse is called
away. Romeo, wandering in, meets Juliet. Their love, as in the play, is instantaneous. Romeo addresses her in passionate accents. "Ange adorable" (Angel! adored one). His addresses, Juliets replies, make a charming duo.
Upon the re-entry of Tyball, Romeo, who had removed his mask, again adjusts it. But Tybalt suspects who he is, and from the utterance of his suspicions, Juliet learns that the handsome youth, to whom her heart has gone out, is none other than Romeo, scion of the Montagues, the sworn enemies of her house. The fiery Tybalt is for attacking Romeo and his followers then and there. But old Capulet, respecting the laws of hospitality, orders that the fête proceed.
Act II. The garden of the Capulets. The window of Juliets apartment, and the balcony, upon which it gives. Romeos page, Stephano, a character introduced by the librettists, holds a ladder by which Romeo ascends to the balcony. Stephano leaves, bearing the ladder with him.
Romeo sings, "Ah! Lève-toi soleil" (Ah! fairest dawn arise). The window opens, Juliet comes out upon the balcony. Romeo conceal himself. From her soliloquy he learns that, although he is a Montague, she loves him. He discloses his presence. The interchange of pledges is exquisite. Lest the sweetness of so much love music become too cloying, the librettists interrupt it with an episode. The Capulet retainer, Gregory, and servants of the house, suspecting that an intruder is in the garden, for they have seen Stephano speeding away, search unsuccessfully and depart.
The nurse calls. Juliet re-enters her apartment. Romeo sings, "O nuit divine" (Oh, night divine). Juliet again steals out upon the balcony. "Ah! je te lai dit, je tadore!" (Ah, I have told you that I adore you), sings Romeo. There is a beautiful duet, "Ah! Ne fuis pas encore!" (Ah, do not flee again). A brief farewell. The curtain falls upon the "balcony scene."
Act III., Part I. Friar Lawrences cell. Here takes place the wedding of Romeo and Juliet, the good friar hoping that their union may lead to peace between the two great Veronese houses of Montague and Capulet. There are in this part of the act Friar Lawrences prayer, "Dieu, qui à fis lhomme a ton image" (God, who made man in Thine image); a trio, in which the friar chants the rubric, and the pair respond; and an effective final quartet for Juliet, Gertrude, Romeo, and Friar Lawrence.
Part II. A street near Capulets house. Stephano, having vainly sought Romeo, and thinking he still may be in concealment in Capulets garden, sings a ditty likely to rouse the temper of the Capulet household, and bring its retainers into the street, thus affording Romeo a chance to get away. The ditty is "Que fais-tu, blanche turelle" (gentle dove, why art thou clinging?) -- Gregory and Stephano draw and fight. The scene develops, as in the play. Friends of the two rival houses appear. Mercutio fights Tybalt and is slain, and is avenged by Romeo, who kills Tybalt, Juliets kinsman, and, in consequence, is banished from Verona by the Duke.
Act IV. It is the room of Juliet, to which Romeo has found access, in order to bid her farewell, before he goes into exile. The lingering adieux, the impassioned accents in which the despair of parting is expressed -- these find eloquent utterance in the music. There is the duet, "Nuit dhyménée, ô douce nuit damour" (Night hymeneal, sweetest night of love). Romeo hears the lark, sure sign of approaching day, but Juliet protests. "Non, non, ce nest pas le jour" (No, no! 'Tis not yet the day). Yet the parting time cannot be put off longer. Romeo: "Ah! reste! reste encore dans mes bras enlaces" (Ah! rest! Rest once more within mine entwining arms); then both, "Il faut partir, hélas" (Now we must part, alas).
Hardly has Romeo gone when Gertrude runs in to warn Juliet that her father is approaching with Friar Lawrence. Tybalts dying wish, whispered into old Capulets ear, was that the marriage between Juliet and the noble whom Capulet has chosen for her husband, Count Paris, be speeded. Juliets father comes top bid her prepare for the marriage. Neither she, the friar, nor the nurse dare tell Capulet of her secret nuptials with Romeo. This gives significance to the quartet, "Ne crains rien" (I fear no more). Capulet withdraws, leaving, as he supposes, Friar Lawrence to explain to Juliet the details of the ceremony. It is then the friar, in the dramatic, "Buvez donc ce breuvage" (Drink then of this philtre), gives her the potion, upon drinking which she shall appear as dead.
The scene changes to the grand hall of the palace. Guests arrive for the nuptials. There is occasion for the ballet, so essential for a production at the Grand Opéra. Juliet drains the vial, falls as if dead.
Act V. The tomb of the Capulets. Romeo, having heard in his exile that his beloved is no more, breaks into the tomb. She, recovering from the effects of the philtre, finds him dying, plunges a dagger into her breast, and expires with him.
In the music there is an effective prelude. Romeo, on entering the tomb, sings, "O ma femme! ô ma bien aimée" (O wife, dearly beloved). Juliet, not yet aware that Romeo has taken poison, and Romeo forgetting for the moment that deaths cold hand already is reaching out for him, they sing, "Viens fuyons au bout du monde" (Come, let us fly to the ends of the earth). Then Romeo begins to feel the effect of the poison, and tells Juliet what he has done. "Console toi, pauvre ame" (Console thyself sad heart). But Juliet will not live without him, and while he in his wandering mind, hears the lark, as at their last parting, she stabs herself.
As "Roméo et Juliette" contains much beautiful music, people may wonder why it lags so far behind "Faust" in popularity. One reason is that, in the lay-out of the libretto the authors deliberately sought to furnish Gounod with another "Faust," and so challenged comparison. Even Stephano, a character of their creation, was intended to give the same balance to the cast that Siebel does to that of "Faust." In a performance of Shakespeares play it is possible to act the scene of parting without making it too much the dupication of the balcony scene which it appears to be in the opera. The "balcony scene" is an obvious attempt to create another "garden scene." But in "Faust," what would be the too long-drawn out sweetness of too much love music is overcome, in the most natural manner, by the brilliant "Jewel Song," and by Méphistophélèss sinister invocation of the flowers. In "Roméo et Juliette," on the other hand, the interruption afforded by Gregory and the chorus is too artificial not to be merely disturbing.
It should be said again, however, that French audiences regard the work with far more favour than we do. "In France" says Storck, in his Opernbuch, "the work, perhaps not unjustly, is regarded as Gounods best achievement, and has correspondingly numerous performances."