Back in the Gilded Age, luxuriously bejeweled ladies and elegantly top-hatted gentlemen went to the opera hoping for an evening they could describe as "charming." They adored Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, in which all the most stylish singers of the day were regularly heard. Audiences of that era didn't look far beyond Roméo's charm to find the substance underneath. Those of us who love this opera today despair whenever the same thing occurs, for substance there is indeed. Expect this season's new Metropolitan Opera production to offer further evidence that Gounod's adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy is captivating in its musical variety, vivid in its theatrical flair, and stirring in its abundant lyrical fervor.
Over the centuries, no romance has proven such a boon for creative and recreative artists. We have had Romeo-and-Juliet poems, ballets, paintings, and more than 25 operas. In France two versions appeared prior to Gounod, both dating from the late 18th century and of little consequence. Greatness, however, there was aplenty in a non-operatic treatment, Hector Berlioz's "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette (1839). When still a teenager, Gounod was thrilled to hear that work in rehearsal at the Paris Conservatoire. One can safely assume that from this moment he longed to do the lovers justice himself.
Gounod came to his own Roméo in his mid-40s, as a musician whose success on Paris' competitive operatic scene had been hard-won. One wonders if he would have been given a chance in any theater without mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, whose influence at the Opéra led to Gounod's first commission for the stage, the mythical drama Sapho (1851). Over the next 16 years, in seven other operas, Gounod's libretti covered wildly varied subject matter. Only Faust (1859) achieved both critical and popular acclaim, ensuring that by the time Roméo appeared in 1867, any Gounod premiere would be a major event for le tout Paris.
Gounod was working with his most frequent collaborators, the librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Their text is pleasant, certainly adequate, but not quite worthy of Shakespeare, with only a few lines from the play included. The essential scenes are there, with a few notable departures: Friar Laurent marries the couple onstage rather than off; the provocation that eventually leads to Tybalt's duet with Mercutio comes initially in the mocking serenade of the page Stephano, a Barbier/Carré creation; and, most significantly, Roméo is still conscious when Juliette awakens in the tomb scene, ensuring that the two can die together, singing in heartfelt unison.
Roméo suffered from the myriad last-minute changes to which 19th-century French operas appear to have been peculiarly prone. Rehearsals were already under way when Gounod composed his recitatives, having finally decided to go that route rather than using spoken dialogue. Juliette's celebrated valse-ariette was written only to please the leading lady, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, wife of the Lyrique's director, who insisted on showing off her coloratura. Reportedly, her performance quite eclipsed that of tenor Pierre-Jules Michot (Roméo) when the opera opened triumphantly at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on April 27, 1867, as part of that city's Exposition Universelle.
After the Lyrique's demise, Roméo moved to the Opéra-Comique in 1873 and to the Opéra in 1888. It was for the Opéra that Gounod added a lengthy ballet, then still required for large-scale French operatic dramas. (Musically uninspired, the ballet is seldom encountered onstage today and is cut in the Met's new production.)
Few operas have ever made the rounds worldwide faster than Roméo. By the end of 1867 it had been welcomed in many European theaters and had also debuted in America, at New York's Academy of Music. In that Italian-language performance the heroine was sung by this country's first genuine opera star, Minnie Hauk‹the day before her 16th birthday! The 1884 Met premiere, also in Italian, occurred on tour in Philadelphia. Audiences in the house didn't hear Roméo until 1891, with the French text sung by the illustrious trio of Emma Eames and the de Reszke brothers. Gounod's opera currently sits at number 24 on the Met's list of most-performed works, immediately under Otello and Die Zauberflöte.
What has attracted a vast international public to Roméo, beyond the obvious appeal of the love story itself? First of all, Gounod was a captivating melodist, able to produce unaffectedly expressive legato lines as easily as drawing breath. Listening to the exquisite second half of the Balcony Scene, one finds oneself rejoicing in phrases that deemphasize the grand vocal gesture while creating an instant emotional pull for the listener.
This opera is unique in offering four glorious love duets, but its total impact musically adds up to so much more than those episodes. Consider the whole picture: the choruses, whether solemn (Prologue), merrily celebratory (Capulet's ball), or excitingly aggressive (duel scene); the duel, which finds Gounod operating with a dramatic heat far exceeding that of any stage work he had previously written, Faust included; the dignified, intimate marriage ceremony followed by a brief but hugely exhilarating quartet. Between the quartet and the Tybalt/Mercutio duel, Gounod wisely gives the audience a "breather" with the two verses of Stephano's serenade. In terms of sheer inventiveness, however, that number yields points to Mercutio's ballad of Queen Mab; a miracle of rapid-fire articulation and effervescent accompaniment, "Mab, la reine" is a gift to any vocally dexterous baritone able to maintain wit and poetry in perfect balance.
Despite being the weakest act musically of the work's five, Act IV does contain two very affecting episodes: the lovers' leave-taking and Juliette's "potion aria." The latter, once virtually unknown, is now regularly restored in stage performances. Its most expansive phrases remind the listener that Juliette makes the same progression as two earlier heroines of Gounod, those of Faust and Mireille: Each of these sopranos begins her role needing a light, girlish vocal weight of voice, but in Acts Four and Five her music takes on an intensity asking for the resources of a "heavy lyric" sound. The coloratura of the first big solo and the gutsiness of later scenes, along with the youthful physique du role, can present the singer with a very tall order.
Roméo, too, has his share of challenges. In his breathtaking, moonlit soliloquy, the climaxes almost invariably strike fear in the hearts of even the bravest tenors. But the role's top notes don't matter half as much as the aching sincerity and passion of youth; those qualities should pervade not just the aria, but the entire role. The duel with Tybalt is strenuous enough, but that scene's finale also calls for the tenor to launch the massive "O jour de deuil" ensemble, a test of any lyric tenor's power and stamina. In the opera's closing pages, at "Console-toi, pauvre âme," Roméo must take off on arching legato lines that, while firmly projected, must nevertheless convey the sense of a life rapidly ebbing away.
Of course, what counts above all is the chemistry between tenor and soprano. It isn't so much that the artists be physically believable together (although that never hurts), but that they can truly "speak" to each other musically. In all their scenes, unanimity of musical approach really is the be-all and end-all. Listen to the post-wedding-night duet sung by Miguel Villabella and Germaine Féraldy, two stars of the interwar years at Paris's Opéra Comique, both remembered today chiefly by collectors; there is a beautiful match in their timbres, a complete "connection" in their style, and perfect judgment in their progression from ecstasy to urgency.
Villabella and Féraldy, a Spaniard and a Frenchwoman, seem something of a parallel with the Met's new couple, Mexico's Ramón Vargas and France's Natalie Dessay, in that both pairs exemplify true elegance vocally, musically, and interpretively. In his first Roméo (Houston, 2005), Vargas‹a Faust, Hoffmann, and Werther‹confirmed his affinity for French opera, lavishing a wealth of shining vocalism on this new role. He showed, too, the all-important ardor and tenderness that Met audiences have cherished in his Bohème and Lucia performances. Dessay will be making Met history as France's first Juliette at the Met. Her three previous portrayals in the house (Olympia, Zerbinetta, Fiakermilli), all dazzlingly stratospheric, have shown her onstage exclusively as a comedienne. Elsewhere, however‹particularly as Lucia and Ophélie‹she has revealed herself as a tragic heroine of extraordinary expressiveness and illuminating dramatic insight.
Supported by the gifted Bertrand de Billy in the pit, Dessay and Vargas will bring to Roméo et Juliette that indefinable element (a touch of class, for lack of a better phrase) that invariably characterizes French opera at its best. Yes, the charm of this work will be evident, but also the heights and depths of deeply felt emotion. In these performers' hands the Bard's characterizations, thrillingly alive in Gounod's music, will once again make the heart beat faster.