Charles Gounod: Romeo et Juliette (1867)

Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 3 hours.

I started writing this review in mid-April, got up to the fourth act love duet, and stopped. Figuring that I only had about an hour left to review, I just came back to it and decided to finish it. It is one of four or five reviews that I have in partial draft and since I am very busy lately I’ve been either working in instalments or otherwise reviewing short (less than 2 hours) operas. Although I personally find the story of Romeo and Juliet to be one of the most sentimental pieces of dreck this is one of the fifty most famous operas ever written, albeit probably forty-ninth on said list. This opera is yet another glaring omission from Sir Denis Forman’s Good Opera Guide. That said and given Forman’s near hatred of French music (his reviews of Massenet’s Werther and Delibes’ Lakme are bloodless) perhaps the fact that he never reviewed it was not such a loss. I can not imagine him giving it a gamma, but he might have done so out of spite because Gounod’s opera is a send up to one of England’s most respected tragedies. I will forego a synopsis as the story is probably the most famous in Shakespeare. The recording under review here is the 1998 recording conducted by Michel Plasson with Angela Gheorghiu as Juliette and Roberto Alagna as her Romeo.

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LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The Overture ** starts off on the same chord as Die fliegende Hollander and is just about as menacing and frankly terrifying. After some seventy seconds of music depicting a brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues, we get some almost Gluck sounding string music and the idea pops in one’s head that we are out of the scary music but no, it was all a trick to catch us off guard and we get a second dose of that music which probably best depicts something akin to epilepsy . Then a sotto voce SATB chorus sings (in French of course) Shakepeare’s Prologue. Gounod finishes us off with his love theme music which, melodramatically romano-tragic as it is, will pop up a lot over the following five acts, get used to it now.

ACT 1: The ballroom of Capulet’s home, a birthday celebration for Juliette in progress.

7: One of the most viral party choruses ever *. Not really one of the best (although the repeated galop is relentlessly irresistible and will return over and over throughout the act like a leitmotif for gaiety or a court jester on a controlled substance). Like “Under the Sea!” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, it will literally stay in your head until you die.  Tybault and Paris interact amid tuneful if typical recitative with Capulet.

12: The chorus in which everyone remarks idiotically on how beautiful Juliette is, (seriously?) is followed by the first of her many, many coloratura soprano airs * although this one lasts all of sixty seconds. Capulet follows this up with the first outing of his own waltz tune *, the chorus and the galop come back for good measure.

18: Mercutio’s Ballad of Queen Mab **, after a ditty chorus from Romeo, Benvolio, and the boys, this is albeit a very lightly accompanied piece but easy to remember. It is also, incidentally, the only attempt Gounod makes to take on Mercutio’s personality; he is far better served by Shakespeare. Romeo needs to get off of Rosalie, she is obviously two-timing him.

22: The moment Romeo first beholds Juliette * he brings in the love motif.

24: Juliette’s return (doesn’t this second entrance undue her first?) sounds like something Mozart would have written while having a headache, but her aria here is too bouncy (and famous) to be anything less than **.

29: The first of four love duets *, in which our pair fall in love at first meeting but foolishly do not exchange names (would that not have saved us a lot of pain?). It starts off with an aged tune that seems more appropriate to bel canto than grand opera and although very pretty, it lacks any sense of dramatic conviction.

33: This lack is somewhat made up for in the act finale which starts off with Romeo finding out that Juliette is Tybault’s cousin, thus she is Capulet’s daughter, and Tybault tells Juliette who Romeo is which leads to one of the most dramatically understated moments in opera as she contemplates with an almost mystical horror that the grave will be their bridal bed ***. Romeo gets dragged back in by her unforgiving cousins but Capulet decides to pardon his enemy for crashing the party (although neither Tybault nor Paris are so willing). Capulet has the guests recommence their celebrating and the galop gets one more whirlwind go.

ACT 2: Capulet’s garden, under Juliette’s balcony.

0, 4: Two and a half minutes of better stated love theme music *. Romeo then comes on escaping a sotto voce off-stage chorus of his friends before embarking on a lovely and lilting aria addressing the sun, which he does not want to rise **, possibly the most adult number in the entire piece.

8, 17, 21: The rest of the act (about nineteen minutes), in spite of a three and a half minute long comically inane interruption from the off-stagers looking for Romeo and Nurse Gertrude and servant Gregorio, consists of a much better love duet than the first. The highlights of which are the initial encounter **, the second inning in which they make wedding plans before Gertrude starts calling Juliette to warn that Capulet is coming *. Romeo’s pleading with her not to go yet but she bids him adieu  ***. She then goes into a somewhat ornery patch about being a caged bird among other things.

25: Definitely the last good-byes for that night **, the love theme returns. Romeo finishes off the scene alone contemplating in the dark stillness of the night.

ACT 3

Scene 1: Friar Laurence’s cell.

0: Gounod starts off doing what he does best: engage in a bit of religious atmosphere *. Very effective and lovely, if a little conceited.

3: Romeo’s interview with the Friar as he requests the rapid nuptial ceremony with Juliette (at first Laurence thinks the bride-to-be is Rosalie). To come extent this scene sounds the most like Meyerbeer, and the chromatic moments (particularly watch out for the woodwinds *) only reenforces my suspicions.

7, 12: The wedding ceremony itself is divided into two halves of unequal length. The first * (and longer) mostly consists of Friar Laurence expounding about matrimony as a sacrament with the lovers responding at the appropriate moments. The scene ends with a wonderful quartet for the newly weds, their priest, and the nurse ***.

Scene 2: A street in Verona.

15, 22, 27: Romeo’s mezzo-soprano page (previously neither seen nor heard of) comes on to what might be mistaken as Beethoven’s Pastoral. He (she?, oh trouser roles!) Although you think this may end up rather disastrous, musically the song is rather catchy * even if it ticks off the Capulets, at first in the form of Gregorio con coro. Romeo, Mercutio, and the gang come to the rescue of the boy and the rest of the scene consists of fighting and dramatic recitative to some rather classical sounding dramatic music resulting in the deaths Mercutio (by Tybault), Tybault (by Romeo), and the sentence of banishment under penalty of death for Romeo (by the Duke). This is all well and good as far as plot forwarding goes, but nothing really stands out musically until the chorus at long last gets a chance to emote for a really long time * just before the Duke arrives. Romeo tries to explain but gets banished leading to an okay if somewhat dim air. The finale * is serviceable, but little more than that. At least it gets the job done, but for a scene of such dramatic importance I would expect more than the final minute of trumpet fanfare and a good high note from our tenor lead amid choral projections of terror, shame, and horror at the state of affairs.

ACT 4:

Scene 1: Juliette’s bedchamber during and after she has consummated her marriage with Romeo.

3: More loverly music in the post-coital sense, more ardent and tragic although one would not guess just from the music that anyone has been having it off much less the most famous lovers in English literature. Juliette tells Romeo to get out (don’t worry she loves him: the dawn is approaching and she doesn’t want to Duke to lop off his pretty head). The best of the love duets ***.  After four minutes they debate for six and a half minutes if it is the lark or the nightingale they hear: it is the lark, obviously, but a musically lovely moment just the same. He decides to stay anyway because she is the just the tops apparently but eventually they bid each other a bittersweet but tender goodbye.

13: If act 3 was Romeo’s, act 4 is Juliet’s. A bit of one of the ballet dances from later in the act follows Gertrude into her mistress’s chambers *. Capulet comes in and tells Juliet, oddly to something half-way to a minuet, that she is going to marry Paris that day (isn’t that bigamy given that Romeo and she were playing a very marital game of hide the rabbit a moment ago?). Gertrude and Paris join in to make it a quartet, although if you listen to a recording rather than watch the opera you will barely notice this.

17: Juliette has her mind blown *, what is she going to do?!?

19: Friar Laurence comes on and gives her this little sleeping potion that will make everything think she is dead. A new motive shows up representing this vial **, something vaguely resembling a Wagnerian leitmotif with one of the most placid bass arias in opera. If it were not telling us that the Friar is a really decent man we would find this entire situation rather disturbing.

25: Juliette’s lovely song before she drinks to Romeo, a bizarrely feminist number as it is the first time she is taking matters into her own hands **. It falls apart in the middle but the beginning and end are both very good.

Scene 2: The Capulet wedding chapel.

30: And now the opera is stopped dead by a seven part ballet *, this time only a merciful 19 minutes long. It is serviceable symphonic music.

  1. Introduction *.
  2. La fiancee et le fleurs.
  3. Valse des fleurs.
  4. Danse de la fiancee *.
  5. L’invitation.
  6. La jeune fille au voile.
  7. Danse bohémienne *, this last is the best of the dances even though it is the longest and most fragmentary.

49: Still more orchestral music, this time a bridal procession for Juliette, mildly interesting and probably skippable frankly if not for a modified variant of a theme from the third act prelude.

52: The Epithalamium *, a mild ensemble to organ accompaniment with Juliette soaring above it all before the drugs take effect.

56: The bridal chorus *, a spirited outing for the chorus to a mild tune. Jovial and upbeat, thus welcomed amid all the sobriety that has marked the opera after act one.

60: Juliette is brought to the altar by her father Capulet. Organ music, daddy has a bit of arioso and then POW! the drugs start taking effect, the tomb theme returns from when Juliette realized that her marriage to Romeo would result in death for them both. A premonition of sorts **, she faints away into sleep, her father and everyone else thinks her dead. The orchestra plays well before fading out.

ACT 5: The Capulet crypt.

0, 3: A brief entr’acte * (less than 2 minutes) depicts the entombment of Juliette by her family. It is sad and not much else can be said about it other than that it sounds vaguely renaissance in style. After a brief recite in which Friar Laurence finds out from a fellow monk that Romeo has failed to receive his letter of explanation there is another orchestral passage, much better than the first ** called <<La sommeil de Juliette>> the “sleep of Juliette”.

5, 7, 9: From this point on, totally over a quarter of an hour, we have nothing but the final love duet ***. At first Romeo comes on in recitative (a), and it is somewhat ornery but there are some good patches of harp music that come out. Then Romeo regards the beauty of his supposedly dead bride (b) ** in a tender arioso with traces of the earlier love music. He finishes with a rather Meyerbeerian tune welling up from the strings as he takes poison. Juliette wakes up (c) just too late to stop him **, at first Romeo totally forgets he has already killed himself because he is so happy Juliette is alive. Gounod rehashes all six or seven of the love themes here in rapid succession. He remembers the poison to some ornery brass chords. The news of the suicide attempt is greeted with some flying strings and then, the orchestra just gives out.

15: The last part (d) of the duet begins with a rather sobering farewell to his soul from Romeo as the poison takes effect ***. It is not the day, it is not the lark, it is the nightingale, we get as Romeo dies, Juliette grabs his dagger and stabs herself. Dying they declare their mutual love one last time accompanied by harps as they pray to God to forgive them. Very effecting. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This is possibly the most contested opera in the standard repertoire not written by Wagner. Some people think it is an exquisite monument to romantic and sexual love and one of the best operatic adaptations of Shakespeare along with Verdi’s Otello or Macbeth; others that it is nothing more than the precursor of belle epoque French fluff opera music in the same vein as Massenet’s Werther and Manon or Delibes’ Lakme. I steer between these two parties rather than agree with either, since unlike the haters, I happen to like French opera.

That is not to say that the opera does not have problems: Gounod has bits of the amazingly good and bits of terrible ennui here. The good consists of his subject matter, Shakespeare; even someone with as inane a (non)-sense of the dramatic as Gounod general demonstrated (La nonne sanglante, Cinq-Mars, Polyeucte) couldn’t mess this up and he musically captures the chemistry between the two young lovers better than any other composer ever did before or since. Tying in to that, there is also an orchestral richness throughout the score which makes Faust at times seem primitive by comparison. The touches of chromaticism in act three are a rather nice treat and an interesting contrast to the heavy usage of 18th century-style musical ideas (the overture and the ballet among other moments which seem to anticipate Massenet’s Manon). Gounod’s homage to Wagner in the first chord of the overture should not go unnoticed, is he trying to answer Tristan und Isolde?  The best thing here is the love music: soft, gentle, refined, like Wagner’s Parsifal only sexy although some claim this also makes the opera saccharine, melodramatic, even tawdry. I am not personally convinced of this although the recent production at the Metropolitan Opera tempted me into believing that this was the case. Saddled to some good music, however, is Gounod’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness?), in portraying any of the other characters with any sense of depth (Friar Laurence being to some extent an exception). Mercutio and Gertrude are the most striking as both here are almost walk on characters with little to no personality. The opera taken as a whole is dramatically inept, episodic, and fragmentary with even more minor characters (Stephano, Capulet, Paris, the Duke) generally making a much larger impact on the direction of the plot than either of the two lovers. So we have in essence two operas going on at once: one has some of the most ardently romantic music ever written but not much of a plot (Romeo and Juliet meet, marry, have sex, and kill themselves) while the other is plot heavy (two families too many for one city, parties, brawls, sword fights ending in mass carnage and banishments, forced and secretly bigamous weddings, sleeping-death potions) but musically overall not all that interesting and at times (act 3 scene 2) somewhat bordering on embarrassment. How has this opera survived for over 150 years? Sex appeal mostly would be my guess because in spite of my better nature, I have to concede that the score has it-factor. Although I do not hate this opera, I must admit that I am hardly in love with it. I’ll put it down as a B+ just to be on the safe side although I am certain that there are those whose opinion on it range from gamma to alpha.

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4 thoughts on “Charles Gounod: Romeo et Juliette (1867)

  1. Like you, I have mixed feelings about Roméo et Juliette. There are some lovely numbers – particularly “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” – but it rarely catches fire.

    Gounod, as you recognise, had little dramatic sense. That made listening to all his operas a year or so back for an article depressing; often beautiful music, boring operas.

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    1. I have always wondered about Gounod. He could write a good tune, even a stunning one, but when working with Shakespeare and Goethe (both generally bullet-proof) he somehow managed to blow it structurally. With lesser material like La nonne sanglante or Sapho, the result was sudden death. Have any other suggestions for good French operas other than Massenet?

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      1. Although Sapho does have “O ma lyre immortelle”!

        Good French operas other than Massenet? Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. don’t think you’ve looked at Gluck, Grétry, Auber, Offenbach, Hervé, or Messager? Boieldieu’s Dame blanche. Cherubini’s Médée, Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone, Salieri’s Danaides, Méhul’s Uthal. Thomas’s Hamlet and Mignon. Dupont’s Antar. Février’s Monna Vanna. Darius Milhaud. Poniatowski’s Pierre de Médicis. Rousseau’s Devin du village, and Roussel’s Padmâvati.

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  2. I have done Messager’s Fortunio, but you are right, he wrote 30 operas. Mignon is a favourite which I have not reviewed, possibly because of the different versions that exist, I can’t make up my mind. I started La muette de Portici months ago but stopped it for some reason. I wished that the video of Dupont’s Antar had not been taken down from YouTube. I knew about it and failed to write it. Benvenuto Cellini is a favourite, I especially love the mad-cap act 1 finale. I’ve heard Mehul’s Joseph years ago. I will look in to some of these you mentioned. It is easier for me to review English or French works because I understand the language better than Russian or even Italian. Maybe Iphigenie en Aulide would be good? I might do the Wagner orchestration perhaps, although that is in German. Perhaps both versions at once. Thank you for the advice and your encouraging comments, I wish more people would write to me. Are there any other operas, in other languages, that you would like to see on the blog? I wish readers would tell me what they would like to see, otherwise I’m just going to review what I randomly find and complete as the mood hits me.

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