It is the most famous story of young love ever placed on the stage. In contrast to the medieval liking for tales of adultery (Lancelot and Guenevere, Paolo and Francesca, Helen of Troy), Romeo and Juliet's lovers are guilty only of defying a brutal social code. You might say their offense pardons itself, but Shakespeare was saving that line for Measure for Measure. Young love defying a hostile world made the play into an eternal hit, even among the Shakespeare-phobic French. To this, his first real tragedy, Shakespeare brought the flower of his lyric gift, image built on ever more exquisite image, each favored character in turn drunk on poetic flights of fancy. (We don't hate Tybalt because he's nasty; we hate him because he's the play's only boor.)
Composers early on deduced that all this romance called for music. Far more operas have been based on the Romeo and Juliet story than on any other Shakespeare play, some two dozen between 1773 and 1950. Of these only Gounod's and Bellini's (which owes little to Shakespeare, being based on Italian sources) achieved much popularity or are ever heard today. However, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a "dramatic symphony" (Berlioz), a symphonic overture (Tchaikovsky), a ballet (Prokofiev), and a Broadway musical (Bernstein's West Side Story), all of which are well known to music lovers. None of these other efforts attempted to set the play literally, as Gounod did‹much of Barbier and Carré's libretto is direct translation‹but somehow each captured some of the play's essence.
Ernest Newman, the magisterial English opera critic, once remarked, "One of the incurable delusions of the musical world is that Romeo and Juliet is ideal material for an opera. It is not…. Even in opera one looks for some development of character between the opening scene and the last; and the lovers of Verona do not develop. It is events that develop, not they." What irritated him was that the lovers never question or challenge the code they violate; they simply succumb to its hatefulness. That's too bad, but is it tragic? Characters in mature Shakespearean tragedy would show more spunk: they'd examine such questions in some detail before undertaking tragic action.
The feud in Verona was the sort of thing Shakespeare's audience and Gounod's expected from a tale about Renaissance Italy: passion, honor, feud, and revenge‹not unlike the clichés now associated with films about the Mafia. Vendetta, in Shakespeare's London, was thought so Italian an instinct that the Spaniard in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore marveled at the play's end that he had surpassed the Italian characters in achieving it.
It is curious that Shakespeare, whose audience adored revenge motifs, and whose contemporary playwrights delighted in catering to the general blood lust, himself wrote no revenger's tragedy after the justly obscure Titus Andronicus. Romeo and Juliet might almost be called an anti-revenger tragedy, for none of its bloody events are applauded, and the sorrow for wasted young life is genuine. This was followed by Julius Caesar, in which Brutus' willingness to murder to preserve his country's freedom is shown, instead, to destroy it, and than by Hamlet. Hamlet's hesitation has irritated readers for three hundred years: Just kill the guy! But he holds his hand, on so many excuses that we may guess the playwright's real message: Thou shalt not kill, even for "excitements of my reason and my blood," except‹as, at the end, is the case‹in self-defense, with nothing more to lose. Human life, whether it is Hamlet's or anyone else's, is worth too much to waste on inhuman behavior. The wise thing is to conquer the very natural passion for revenge, and this appears to have been Shakespeare's philosophy all along: what a waste it is to yield to one's animal passions. Even his Italians, such as Friar Laurence and Prince Escalus (and old Capulet when his blood is cool), can see that.
Hector Berlioz avoided the difficulty of characters who do not accept but also do not challenge their society's mores by not personifying the lovers, whose voices we never hear in his curious creation. Instead, the well-known story is told musically, erupting into anonymous song in choral commentary or in the solos that attempt to find sung equivalents of Shakespeare's verse of passion and dreams. The only "person" is a scolding Friar Laurence (Friar Laurent in the opera), after the tragedy is complete.
Gounod knew Berlioz' work well. In 1839, as a 21-year-old apprentice, he assisted in the work's premiere. From this source, no doubt, he derived the idea (which he convinced his librettists to accept) of giving the introductory verse of Shakespeare's Chorus (a solo actor) to an actual chorus, so that the brilliant Capulet ball that follows makes a superb contrast. It was also, perhaps, Berlioz' treatment that convinced him to make a set piece of the Queen Mab speech, which gives us Mercutio's personality‹without this, we would hardly feel his death. Berlioz' determination to find new musical forms suitable to such sources as Romeo and Juliet and Faust‹and the often puzzled reception accorded his efforts‹surely played a part in convincing Gounod to remain within the bounds of conventional opera when he addressed these works.
Two years after his exposure to Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette, Gounod, now at the Villa Medici having won the Prix de Rome, began an operatic setting of the story, using a libretto Felice Romani devised, either the one set by Bellini or another he had created for Nicola Vaccai's Giulietta e Romeo. Some scenes of this juvenile attempt survive but, unsurprisingly, hardly resemble the mature opera composed 25 years later.
After the triumph of Faust, Gounod spent ten years experimenting in other styles of opera‹sending up classical mythology (with more seriousness than the ribald satires Offenbach was turning out at the same time) in Philémon et Baucis, capitalizing on the vogue for orientalia in his Masonic grand opera, La Reine de Saba, and turning a French provincial epic into opera in Mireille. None of these scored anything like the success of Faust, and the last was an outright failure. In 1862 an anonymous reviewer at the Brussels premiere of La Reine de Saba asked, "When will you give us that Roméo et Juliette that seems made for you, and that you alone can give to the French stage?" He was not the only one who saw, in the generally admired duet in the Garden Scene of Faust, the composer's métier. By 1866, Gounod had yielded to this general opinion that he stick to what he did best, and while composing the opera, he said that creating the music of young love made him feel not fifty but twenty years old again.
Can any couple in opera match Roméo et Juliette's record of four distinct love duets? The story demanded at least three because so much of the audience knew Shakespeare, and expected the love-at-first-sight duet at the ball, the Balcony Scene, and the-nightingale-and-not-the-lark awakening. To these, like many others‹including David Garrick in his long-popular performing edition of Shakespeare's play‹Gounod's librettists obligingly added a fourth, by awakening Juliet in the tomb before Romeo expired. The duets exploited Gounod's honeyed tunefulness, his learning (in setting the first meeting to formal strophes of what he called a "madrigal"), and the feelings of any tenor-soprano team in search of the perfect vehicle. Too, the awakening scene that opens Act IV is preceded by a brief but erotic prelude that may seem tame to those aware of what Wagner and Strauss would make of such opportunities, but it was quite daring for 1867. (Roméo et Juliette was composed after the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, but you wouldn't know it, and Gounod didn't know it‹thirty more years would pass before Tristan reached Paris.)
Shakespeare gave Juliet a knack for wordplay and some serious soul-searching in her "potion" soliloquy, but her intellectual qualities have not appealed to sentimental interpreters‹Franco Zeffirelli omitted the soliloquy from his film, and Gounod's producer, Léon Carvalho of the Théâtre-Lyrique, was of similar mind. Originally Gounod intended that this be Juliette's biggest moment, and he composed and orchestrated such a scene. Carvalho, however, wanted the entire chorus on stage at the climactic moment of her apparent death in order to lament it properly at the fall of the curtain on Act IV. (When the piece reached the Paris Opéra in 1888 the aged Gounod added a ballet at this point.)
Carvalho's opinions were seconded by the prima donna, his wife, Caroline Miolhan-Carvalho, who demanded a coloratura waltz of the sort that had been such a success for her in creating both Marguerite and Mireille. There was no place to put such a thing in the story's later scenes, but Gounod did as he was told, and the opera suffers for it: Juliette lacks equal weight. On the other hand, the popularity of "Je veux vivre" may have had a hand in keeping the opera beloved of virtuoso coloraturas.
While never equaling Faust in favor and, like it, growing rarer upon the declining fashion of gossamer sentiment and coloratura waltzes, Roméo et Juliette remains among Gounod's greatest successes, its rank as the reigning operatic version of the play, unchallenged.