Roméo et Juliette (with French libretto)
(b. Paris, 17 June 1818 – d. Saint-Cloud, 18 October 1893)
Roméo et Juliette (1865-67, rev. 1873 and 1888)
Opera in a Prologue and Five Acts
on a libretto after Shakespeare by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
In the preface to his Lettres intimes (pp. vii-ix), Charles Gounod recounts how in 1839, as a twenty-one-year-old student at the Conservatoire, he would rush out of his composition class to “hide himself in a corner of the hall and listen intoxicated to this strange, violent, impassioned music which opened up such new and exotic horizons.” The music in question was Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, rehearsed by the composer himself, and the impact it left on Gounod was indelible. When he finally met Berlioz a short while later, he amazed the composer by rushing to the piano and playing large swaths of the finale from memory although the work was at that time still unpublished and unperformed. There can be little doubt that he had Berlioz’s great and tragic example in mind, both as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale, when he came to write his own opera on Shakespeare’s play twenty-five years later.
Hardly two years after his encounter with Berlioz, Gounod, while studying at the Villa Medici in Rome, already impatiently began to sketch an opera on Romeo and Juliet, using the libretto that Felice Romani had prepared for Bellini. But it was only much later, in late 1864, that Gounod, now the forty-six-year-old composer of Faust and soon to be indicted into the Académie des Beaux Arts, turned his thoughts seriously to an operatic setting of Romeo and Juliet. He applied to his seasoned librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who produced a suitable text in the early part of 1865. Gounod found it immediately to his liking, as it preserved much of the original play and made no hamhanded attempt to bowdlerize it for popular consumption. He promptly left Paris for the Côte d’Azur in April 1865 and set to work on the score, which he wrote at a breathtaking pace unusual even for this remarkably fecund composer. Most of the opera was completed within the space of a month, after which Gounod entered a state of nervous exhaustion and was forced to interrupt his flow of music. But two weeks later he was back at work, and in August 1866 he could present the finished score to the director of the Théâtre Lyrique, Léon Carvalho. The results left him fully satisfied: “The first act ends brilliantly; the second is tender and dreamy, the third bold and animated with the duets and Romeo sentenced to exile: the fourth is dramatic, and fifth tragic. It’s a fine progression.” Having thus covered all the operatic bases, and having distanced himself from the patchwork technique of his predecessor Berlioz, he eagerly awaited the première of a work which he instinctively felt could only be a success.
But Carvalho, a man of firm opinions and theatrical savvy, immediately demanded changes. Gounod had originally allowed for much spoken dialogue, feeling that recitative would slow down the action on stage. Carvalho disagreed, and recitatives were duly added, along with extra material for Act IV, Scene 2, and an aria for Carvalho’s wife Marie Caroline (“Je veux vivre dans le rêve“). Other sections were eliminated: an aria for Frère Laurent, a chorus of monks to accompany the wedding scene, and the scene of the two friars at the beginning of Act V. But Gounod’s confidence in the new work began to evaporate as soon as it entered rehearsal. The Paris Exposition was taking place at the time, and a grand state ball and reception had been scheduled for the exact same date as the première. Gounod pleaded for a postponement. Carvalho, however, shrewdly recognized that if the performance were successful, the opera-goers would flock afterwards to the official ball and talk of nothing else, making it an overnight sensation. In the end, when the opera was premièred at the Théâtre Lyrique on 27 April 1867, that is exactly what happened.
Never before and never again in his career did Gounod witness a theatrical triumph on the scale of Roméo et Juliette. Ninety consecutive performances at the Théâtre Lyrique were sold out, with many tickets going to foreign visitors to the Exposition. Before the year was over, the opera had been performed in London (curiously, in Italian), Milan, Brussels, and Dresden. The benefit to Gounod’s career and his other works was enormous. To quote his biographer Charles Osborne:
Read full preface > HERE