Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Romeo and Juliet (Gounod)
Romeo and Juliet
(French title: Roméo et Juliette)
An Opera by Charles François Gounod
In France this opera is placed before "Faust." In the opinion of most critics on this side of the Channel it should rank next to what is surely the greater work. In any case, only these two, of all the operas of Gounod, can be regarded as unmistakable successes. "Faust" was in France a kind of innovation, and "Romeo and Juliet" might be described as the off-shoot and sequence. The subject had been exploited by many composers before Gounod touched it, but he has eclipsed all previous efforts.
It is unnecessary to go over the story, since the composers librettists have followed Shakespeares version of the legend, and even his diction, very closely. The first Act represents the ball at Capulets house, the stolen march of Romeo and his friends, the first meeting of the lovers, and the recognition of Romeo by the vindictive Tybalt. The second Act is the famous Balcony Scene. The third is divided into two scenes: (1) Friar Laurences cell, where Romeo and Juliet are secretly married; and (2) the street outside Capulets house, with the double duel and the banishment of Romeo. The fourth Act reveals Juliets room, where the lovers part, and Juliet takes the sleeping potion from the Friar. The last Act comprises a front and a set scene. In the former, Friar Laurence learns that his instructions to Romeo have miscarried; in the latter the tomb of the Capulets is seen. The opera ends, like the drama, with the death of the lovers.
Gounods music admirably illustrates the subject. The plot is practically a succession of love-duets; and it is love -- dreamy, languorous, tender, and voluptuous, a thing woven of moonlight -- that is chiefly pictured in the score. For this Gounod, as the reader will have already gathered, was peculiarly suited by temperament. A French interviewer, describing him in his study, said that there was always something feminine about him; remarking at the same time the charming persuasiveness and sweet, mellow-toned, unctuous eloquence of his speech.
These characteristics are seen in both his great operas, but more especially -- and naturally, from the nature of the theme -- in "Romeo and Juliet". The music as a whole lacks continuity, but this is lost sight of in the passion and interest and beauty of the single numbers. The scene in Juliets room is delightfully tender, and the balcony duet is melodious and expressive. There is a showy waltz-arietta for Juliet at the ball, and a striking solo for Friar Laurence, with a strong trio and quartet following. The charming madrigal for two voices in the first Act, and the tragic scene in the tomb, with its profound melancholy, are also worth noting. The ballet should perhaps be regarded as an excrescence, since it retards the action and checks the interest with no other compensation than a display of limbs.
The first performance was at the Théâtre Lyrique on April 27, 1867. It was a dazzling première; and this time at least the composer had not to wait before reaping his laurels. The opera was played for a hundred consecutive nights. It was revived at the Opera Comique in 1873, and held its place in the repertoire for fifteen years. In London, it was included in Mme. Pattis repertoire in an Italian version, but it was not until 1889, when Sir Augustus Harris staged it in the original French, that it became the rage. Its vogue has somewhat dwindled, but it will be long before it dies out entirely.