By Alan Schuster
When Charles Gounod began composing his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1867, he’d already enjoyed considerable success with an earlier transformation of Goethe’s Faust.
And so for this lush romance about the star-crossed lovers, he collaborated with the same librettists and thus established a new genre in late 19th century opera, called lyrical drama, in which the feuding Capulet and Montague families become background for the love story.
The libretto remains very close to the main characteristics of the play, often even to the text. One very notable example includes Juliette’s lines in the balcony scene when she anticipates her lover’s arrival with “Romeo, wherefore art thou? … What rose we call by any other name would smell as sweetly.”
One obvious exception, however, comes in the casting when Gounod’s team ignored Shakespeare’s lines by Juliette’s father that she “hath not seen the change of fourteen years.” In such a time period, women did marry at an early age, but not so with sopranos.
As for the music, it has been soundly defined as “passion personified, from tender intimacy to ecstatic grandeur,” including four exceptional love duets and soaring music from the orchestra and chorus. An oft-quoted statement is that the score of the opera is a “love duet with occasional interruptions.”
Verona, 18th century. A feud has been raging for generations between the Capulets and Montagues. Juliette, Capulet’s daughter, has been promised to Count Paris, but she is not interested in marriage. At a masked ball at her father’s house, she meets Romeo, a Montague, and the two fall instantly in love.
That night, Romeo comes to Juliette’s balcony, and they reassure each other of their love.
Romeo meets Juliette at Frere Laurent’s cell. Hoping their love might reconcile their families, he marries them. Later, a street fight breaks out. Romeo’s friend Mercutio is challenged by Tybalt, Juliette’s cousin. Romeo intervenes, but when Tybalt kills Mercutio, he kills Tybalt in revenge.
After spending a secret wedding night with Juliette, Romeo leaves Verona. When Capulet declares that Juliette is to marry Paris that same day, Frere Laurent gives her a potion to make her appear dead. He promises she will awake with Romeo beside her. On the way to the chapel, Juliette collapses.
Romeo breaks into the Capulet’s crypt and, faced with Juliette’s seemingly lifeless body, takes poison. At that moment, Juliette awakens and they share a final dream of happiness. Then she decides to follow him. The lovers die, asking God for forgiveness.
The opera is not without enjoyable arias sung by each one. In Act I, Juliette sings a graceful and high-spirited waltz at the ball about the tender dreams of youth. In Act II, Romeo tries to entice Juliette to come to her balcony.
The electrifying pairing of Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo reunites for the Met’s new production by Bartlett Sher. Gianandrea Noseda conducts.
Tickets for all operas are now available. All seats are general admission. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for OLLI members and $10 for students $10.
Order online at www.centerforthearts.com or by calling 843-521-4145. The box office opens at noon.