When the old Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883, part of the interior decoration was an honor roll of six great operatic composers, whose names were inscribed across the top of the six-story gold proscenium. Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner‹and Gounod. Gounod?
How times have changed! In 1883, Handel's operas, so much a part of the repertoire today, were unknown. The works of Puccini, Strauss, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo that are so popular now, were yet to be written. Still, most operagoers of today would be surprised that Charles Gounod would be honored above popular composers like Rossini, Donizetti, or Bellini, all of whom had operas performed that first season.
But the last couple of decades of the 19th century were a kind of golden age for French opera. The public appetite for Meyerbeer (who had no less than three works presented that first season by the Met), Thomas (who had two), and Gounod (also two) seemed insatiable. Even during the years 1884-91, when the Met became, essentially, a German theater, with all operas performed in German by largely German casts, works by French composers almost unknown today, such as Auber, Boieldieu, and Halévy, were also a part of the schedule.
Today French opera‹with the exception of the always popular Carmen‹has fallen on hard times. It's curious that in an era when our society has become so multicultural in so many areas, most French operas are considered, well, frankly, second-rate. Audiences still enjoy Manon, Werther, Samson and Delilah, and Faust, but critics deride them.
And a French opera based on Shakespeare, like Gounod's Romeo and Juliet? Horrors! All too many critics and members of the musical establishment would agree with the British writer who sneered that Gounod had placed Shakespeare's drama in "a voluptuous and sugary envelope."
This relegating of a major French opera to beyond the artistic pale is doubly odd when one considers that other versions of the Romeo and Juliet story are treasured. Both the Broadway version (West Side Story) and various film adaptations (like Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet with young Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, or Baz Luhrmann's, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio) are accorded the respect they deserve, although both deviate from Shakespeare from time to time. So why is Gounod's version so excoriated by Anglo-Saxon critics?
Part of it is because French music is something of a stepchild in our opera houses. With the exception (again) of Carmen, French opera is suspect. It's not to be taken seriously.
Perhaps one reason for this almost automatic slighting of French music is that it so often depends for its effects on nuance and delicacy. It must be performed with elegance. In our culture, "nuance" and "elegance" are often synonyms for "weak" and "effeminate." But that is not the way Gounod, or his audiences, viewed it. For them, a nuance was not something to be dismissed as frivolous, but was something that gave tremendous expression to a musical phrase. As the composer Camille Saint-Saëns once wrote of Gounod: "Expressiveness was always his ideal: that is why there are so few notes in his music…each note sings."
Gounod's father, who died when the composer was only five years old, had been a painter, and in his autobiography Gounod admits, "I have no doubt that if my father had lived, I would have been a painter instead of a musician. But my mother's profession, and the education I received from her during the years of my childhood, determined the balance in favor of music."
Nonetheless, Gounod was particularly attuned to the world of drawing, painting, and sculpture, and it influenced the way he thought about music, especially opera. He compared writing an opera to painting a portrait. "[An opera] is a kind of portrait painting," he said. "It should interpret characters as a painter reproduces a face or an attitude. It should gather up and fix all the features, all the inflections, so variable and fleeting, which, taken together, form the individuality of physiognomy that is called a person." But he realized that when we look at a Rembrandt portrait, for instance, our eyes take in simultaneously a great deal of visual information. But music can only impart its description of a character successively, bit by bit.
So in his operas, Gounod created characters phrase by phrase, allowing us to gradually get to know them. In Romeo and Juliet, the way he painted the "musical portraits" of the young lovers is as seductive as it is skillful.
At first Juliet is a carefree, excited girl intoxicated with the exuberance of life itself. The little waltz she sings when her father introduces her in Act One ("Écoutez! Écoutez!") begins with Juliet singing a D in the middle of the staff 12 times‹as if she is so excited she can't move. But the vocal line begins to expand, and Juliet suddenly bursts out into an exuberant cadenza, hitting both high C and the D above it, whirling around the musical staff. It's a superb musical description of Juliet's desire to whirl around the dance floor.
The impression of this first little waltz is quickly reiterated by her first real aria, "Je veux vivre," also known as Juliet's Waltz. At this stage of the drama Juliet is a charming teenage girl, jubilant in being at the party and euphoric at simply being alive.
But later in the first act, when Juliet learns that the handsome young man with whom she has just fallen in love is Romeo, a Montague, and therefore an enemy of the Capulets, she is horrified. Gounod sets her words "C'était Roméo!" on low D-sharp and E. Those notes are toward the bottom of a lyric soprano's vocal range, and it automatically gives a dark, haunting quality to the soprano's voice. The few measures that follow, as Juliet realizes that her love for Romeo might well lead to her death, are filled with despair. Gounod's music immediately reveals the change in Juliet. The orchestra repeats the same motif over and over, expressing the sobs that Juliet is too stunned to give in to at that moment. It's a brief moment, lasting fewer than two-dozen measures. But Gounod's skill at conveying a character's soul through music has suddenly turned Juliet into a three-dimensional character.
Romeo, too, goes from the charming, love-struck young man of the first two acts to a resolute adult when he is exiled at the end of Act III. "Let me die, but I must see her once more!" he sings, and Gounod's music is a thrilling example of something the painter Ingres told the composer while he was still a student: "There is no grace without force."
"Force preserves grace from becoming puerile, and grace prevents force from becoming brutal," Gounod explained. "It is the perfect harmony of these two elements that marks the height of art and which constitutes genius."
Or, as Saint-Saëns wrote: "[Gounod's] aim was to achieve the maximum possible effect with the minimum of apparent effort, to reduce the representation of external events and objects to a minimum, and to concentrate all the interest on the expression of feelings."
In Romeo and Juliet, Gounod combines force and grace so deftly‹and always in the service of the emotions and feelings of the characters‹that he wrote an opera that can still deeply move us today, even as we revel in its unending melodies and glittering orchestration. All we have to do is open our hearts, as well as our ears, to its abundant charms.
Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.