Breaking the Mold: Gounod's 'Romeo and Juliet'

WOO-1409-Romeo-250While you might not think so, Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, based on the play by Shakespeare, is one of the rarest things in opera.

Over the centuries, Romeo and Juliet has inspired all kinds of music. There are songs, symphonic poems, Broadway musicals and film scores.

In the Broadway category the most famous example must be West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Stephen Sondheim. That show, in turn, has spawned countless "covers" of its hit tunes, in all manner of musical guises.  There's even an extra-peppy version of "I Feel Pretty," performed by Little Richard!

Among the many films inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy, the one with the most famous music is probably the version by Franco Zeffirelli. The movie's score, by Nino Rota, was a hit all on its own, with its famous "Love Theme" that also became a hit song, "A Time for Us."

There's also plenty of classical music inspired by the play, including the familiar tone poem by Tchaikovsky, and a brilliant ballet by Sergei Prokofiev, and a unique dramatic score for chorus and orchestra by Berlioz.

So what makes Gounod's opera a rare bird? It's not just that it's based on Shakespeare's tragedy; there are plenty of other operas in that category. What's unusual about Gounod's version is that it's an opera based on Shakespeare that's actually a hit.

There are hundreds of Shakespeare operas, including about two dozen based on Romeo and Juliet. But, astonishingly, of those hundreds only a few are still seen regularly on today's stages.  And of all the "R & J" operas, Gounod's is really the only one that has stuck in the repertory.

When Gounod turned his attention to Romeo and Juliet in 1867 he'd already had a big hit with another adaptation -- an opera based on Goethe's Faust.  So for Romeo and Juliet, he collaborated with the same librettists he worked with on the earlier opera: Jules Barbier & Michel Carré.

The two writers stuck fairly close to the original play by Shakespeare, though there are some changes. Barbier and Carré cut a few scenes that didn't deal directly with the two lovers. They also tweaked the ending. In the play, when Juliet finally awakens in the tomb, Romeo is already dead.  When she wakes up in the opera, Romeo still has a few flickers of life -- enough for the two to sing a final duet before Juliet stabs herself and they die together.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Gounod's Romeo and Juliet in a production from the Royal Wallonie Opera in Liège, Belgium. Soprano Annick Massis and tenor Aquiles Machado star in the title roles, in a production led by conductor Patrick Davin.