Charles Gounod: The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in four beautiful duets

Romeo and Juliet at San Francisco Opera
The tomb scene from Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet at San Francisco Opera, 2019, with Pene Pati as Romeo and Nadine Sierra as Juliet. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Opera is fundamentally a genre of emotional storytelling. It speaks to the core of the human condition and our shared experiences as emotive beings.  The intersection of voice, music, and drama makes opera so perfect at telling humanity’s most universal stories through an intimately emotional lens.  Soaringly passionate and exquisitely heartbreaking, Romeo and Juliet is a perfect operatic subject, leading French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) to appropriate it in Paris nearly 300 years after its Shakespearean origins.

So much about Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette) is bound up in the emotional intimacy of its star-crossed protagonists. Gounod, with his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (the same pair behind the operatic telling of Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas), eschewed much of the political, courtly intrigue in Shakespeare’s play, focusing more on the lyrical arc of the love story. They used the world of Renaissance Verona to frame a love story of heartbreaking tragedy, punctuated by four masterful duets—a concentration of amour unprecedented even by romantic French opera standards.

That Gounod structured the piece around these key love duets was likely an attempt—and a successful one—to ensure a positive audience reaction to his work. His opera Faust, composed a decade before Romeo and Juliet, had proven to be incredibly popular, seeing 300 performances at the Théâtre Lyrique in just a decade. But his intervening works, including a grand opera on the Queen of Sheba, had been decided flops, running just handfuls of performances and leading to huge bouts of depression for the composer.

So, after three unsuccessful follow-ups to Faust, Gounod was desperate for a success. He had been considering the subject of Romeo and Juliet for some time, and one of the critics of his failed operas even urged him towards it, imploring: “When will you give us that Roméo et Juliette that seems made for you and that only you can give to the French stage?” Gounod worked feverishly on the piece, going into “confinement” as he called it in the seaside town of Saint-Raphael in Provence. Within a month he had all of the numbers sketched out in short score, quickly expanding them into an orchestrated full score, and the whole opera was completed in just over a year. On April 27, 1867, the opera had its premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris and was heard for the first time by audiences in New York (in an Italian translation!) that very same year.

Nadine Sierra singing as Juliet
Nadine Sierra as Juliet in rehearsal for Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet at San Francisco Opera, 2019. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It is the opera’s four duets that encapsulate why the work is such a masterpiece. Gounod himself was a religious man, and I find an almost spiritual quality in much of his writing for the lovers. He evokes moments when the world seems to stand still and you feel the total immersion of two souls as one, the brutal impossibility of their alliance receding into a blurry background.

The first duet is the madrigal of Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter at the ball—the meeting of two hands, as sacred a moment as the hands of a pilgrim or a saint coming together in prayer. It is the music of two young people shyly getting to know each other—lines that alternate between the two teenagers as they pick up on each other’s cues with music of simplicity, hope, expectation.

The next time we hear the two lovers sing together is the ecstatic meeting on the balcony when Juliet pledges herself to Romeo, and they bid each other an achingly romantic farewell. Parting is such sweet sorrow, and Gounod expresses the lovers’ union through close, intertwined harmony—two voices becoming one, never leaving each other.

The third duet is the ‘lark and the nightingale’ duet that begins the fourth act of the opera. With an evocative, sensual yearning in a quartet of cellos, Gounod introduces us to the bedroom of two young lovers. This orchestral entr’acte tells us so much about the composer’s aesthetic interpretation of the Shakespearean tragedy, with long, aching lines of lyricism and subtle orchestration intended to preserve the innocence of the lovers. These traits permeate the vocal lines as Romeo and Juliet awake from a night of intimacy, refusing to admit that morning has arrived.

The fourth and final duet comes to us at the heartbreaking end to the opera. Unlike in Shakespeare, Juliet awakens in time to see Romeo before he dies of poison. This is a similar dramatic conceit to that employed by Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, whose 1830 opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi offers another setting of the same tragedy. Both Gounod and Bellini found it impossible to realize the full emotional intensity of an operatic love story without a final moment together for the protagonists, and Gounod makes certain that we are emotional wrecks by the end of his opera! While in previous duets, the voices were in close harmony, here they truly fuse into one, a declamatory unison line surging upwards in defiance of the death that awaits them.

This exquisite opera will open San Francisco Opera’s 2019–20 season on September 6 and play through October 1. The production comes to us from Opéra de Monte-Carlo’s General Director and stage director Jean-Louis Grinda. He makes his American debut with this Romeo and Juliet staging which is everything you would hope for in this piece—sumptuous period costumes, the frame of 14th-century Verona, and the all-important swashbuckling swordsmanship to punctuate the arc of intense lyrical beauty in these four love duets. It should be a stunning opener to our season, and I hope that, if you find yourself in the San Francisco Bay Area, you will join us!