The Composer Was No Romeo
By Olin Chism
As numerous passages in his plays decisively confirm, William Shakespeare was a great music-lover. Just consider the following from The Merchant of Venice:
“The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted.”
So it’s safe to say that the Bard would have been pleased to know that literally hundreds of composers have turned to him for operatic plots (more than 200 just since 1945, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Prominent among them was Charles Gounod, whose Romeo and Juliet, is the third offering on the Dallas Opera’s 2010-2011 Season Schedule. It is generally agreed that Gounod’s is the best of all the operatic Romeos (I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which the Dallas Opera produced in 1977, doesn’t really count here, since Bellini and his librettist turned to Italian sources, rather than Shakespeare for their inspiration).
James Harding, Gounod’s biographer, rates Romeo and Juliet above the ever-popular Faust, declaring that Romeo “represented a peak of success that Gounod was never to reach again.”
Chronologically, Romeo and Juliet came ninth in Gounod’s list of 12 operas (Faust was fourth). His eighth opera, Mireille, is occasionally performed, but most of the others have faded into obscurity — though the titles of two of them, La Nonne Sanglante (The Bloody Nun) and Le Medecin Malgré Lui (The Doctor In Spite of Himself) arouse curiosity.
Gounod composed his Romeo in 1865 and 1866 to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, his previous collaborators on Faust. The opera premiered in Paris in 1867 and was an instant success — standing alone among his operas as “an uncontested triumph in his lifetime,” in Harding’s words.
One sure sign of its popularity was the quick appearance in a Parisian theater of a parody called Rhum et Eau en Juillet, whose gross pun is obvious even to English speakers. It means Rum and Water in July.
Romeo‘s popularity is owed, first of all, to Gounod’s unfailing flow of fine melody. One number, Juliet’s “Je veux vivre,” should be familiar to multitudes of music-lovers unaware of its origins. Four duets for Romeo and Juliet are often cited for their beauty and effectiveness, and the opera is suffused with many memorable and attractive moments.
There are numerous subtle delights. Friar Laurence’s noble “Dieu qui fit l’homme à ton image” contains hints of Sarastro’s “In diesen heilgen Hallen” in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which Gounod loved. Another winner is Mercutio’s Queen Mab ballad — Queen Mab had been deleted in previous operatic Romeos.
Another source of the work’s popularity is, of course, the story itself. Although Shakespeare’s version is by far the best and most famous, the tale of the star-cross’d lovers and their feuding families has been fascinating readers and live audiences at least since the Middle Ages, well before Shakespeare made it his own.
That familiarity may be one reason that Gounod and his librettists decided to stay closer to Shakespeare than is the operatic norm. There is a lot of tinkering with details — unavoidable since opera is a slower-paced art form than spoken theater, and the play, if presented unabridged in musical form, would stretch to enormous length. But the broad outlines are faithfully preserved.
The biggest change is that Romeo and Juliet are alive together — and proceed to die together — at the end. Otherwise you couldn’t have a final duet, you see. Shakespeare’s ending, with Friar Laurence and the reconciling families lamenting the lovers’ deaths, is entirely omitted. One character, Stéphano, is added to the mix, but Shakespeare’s 25 characters are reduced to just 16, including Stéphano.
Both play and opera open with a prologue, and Barbier and Carré make some attempt to link to Shakespearean language despite the severe limitation imposed by the move to French. “Star-cross’d lovers” becomes “malheureux amants,” “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” becomes “Ô Roméo, pourquoi ce nom est-il le tien?” and “Parting is such sweet sorrow” translates as “De cet adieu si douce est la tristesse.”
The huge success of Romeo and Juliet did not, alas, lead to greater things. Gounod continued to compose, but full of official honors — election to the Académie des Beaux Arts, officier in the Légion d’Honneur — he became something of a pompous institution. In Harding’s words, “His bearing was not unlike that of 19th century British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who, Queen Victoria was said to complain, had the habit of addressing her as if she were a public meeting.”
There was one embarrassing episode in Gounod’s later life. In 1870, he and his family moved to England to escape the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War. The composer was much admired in England, and among his adoring fans was a much younger married woman, Georgina Weldon.
Apparently the adoration, and Gounod’s welcoming response, was too much for Mrs. Gounod. She and the children moved back to France, and the composer moved in with Mr. and Mrs. Weldon.
No one knows for sure, but the modern consensus seems to be that nothing untoward happened between Gounod and Mrs. Weldon. Apparently the composer liked to be pampered, and Georgina (and her husband!) were, evidently, happy to comply.
Eventually Gounod moved back to France, where he and his wife were reconciled. That should have been that, except that Mrs. Weldon became embittered and began initiating lawsuits claiming that Gounod owed her money to compensate for all the time, effort and money she had spent on him. She won her case in England but couldn’t collect a sou in France.
The 19th-century equivalent of supermarket tabloids had a field day, and poor Gounod had to put up with the embarrassment for the rest of his days (he died in 1893).
In light of all this, one might argue that Shakespeare got it slightly wrong, that — contrary to his implication — even musicians can be fit for “stratagems and spoils.” But Romeo and Juliet‘s “concord of sweet sounds” is enough to make us believe that Charles Gounod was a man to be trusted, at least in musical affairs.
Olin Chism is an accomplished music critic who has served the North Texas community for decades. Formerly with “The Dallas Morning News,” Mr. Chism today writes and reviews for KERA’s “Art and Seek” and other publications.