Opera Dives Deep: Taming the Barbarian

By: Lyric Opera Staff

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Dr. Felicia Londré, Curators' Distinguished Professor Emerita of Theatre History at University of Missouri-Kansas City, joined Opera Dives Deep on Monday, February 26, 2024, to engage audiences with topics around Roméo et Juliette. Her presentation, Taming the Barbarian, explored the history of Shakespeare’s acceptance (or lack thereof) in France with particular attention to Romeo and Juliet. The full presentation is available on YouTube, and highlights are below.

Gounod’s 1867 operatic treatment of Roméo et Juliette enjoyed instant success from the premiere performance, attributed mainly to the deeply emotional music. All reviews, however, were not so positive—and the use of a Shakespeare play as a basis for the libretto was considered questionable. One reviewer, Gustave Bertrand, commented on the “bad taste” (“mauvais gout”) throughout Shakespeare’s original text, and was especially keen on removing the “vulgarities” (“traits grossiers”), even in the sublime love scenes. In fact, the French had long been wary of Shakespeare, whose unrefined dramaturgy violated French theater standards. Shakespeare did not become accepted on the stage until opera in the mid-nineteenth century.

Dr. Londré speaks of a “sticky” relationship between France and England—a rivalry that lasted 1,000 years. The Italian Renaissance started in Italy and gradually worked its way north to France, instilling a devotion to Greek and Latin classics. These classics were viewed as the hallmark of civilization. France, therefore, came to regard Britain and other Nordic lands as barbaric. French culture peaked in the seventeenth century with neo-classical art, while Shakespeare’s work of a century earlier remained almost unknown.

During the seventeenth century, the British monarchy was driven out by the commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. They retreated to France and adopted French manners and tastes rather than introducing their own English literary greats. During Cromwell’s eighteen years, no plays had been written in England, and many of Shakespeare’s works had been lost. After Charles II’s triumphant return to England, theater managers revived Shakespeare but carefully edited his work to suit more refined tastes. One such example is the ending of Romeo and Juliet, which was revised to have Juliet awaken in the tomb from her poison-induced slumber before Romeo dies of his self-inflicted death. Spoiler alert—this 1748 ending made its way into Gounod, Barbier, and Carré’s Roméo et Juliette 119 years later.

The French Revolution (1789-1793) filled the streets of Paris with blood, and crowds gathered to watch public executions of perceived enemies. It was during this time that melodrama became the dominant form of theater. As Dr. Londré asked, “How dare the French call Shakespeare barbaric?” Shakespeare slowly made its way into France—first by Voltaire who attended Shakespeare plays during his exile in England; then by de La Place, the first partial translator of Shakespeare into French; and then by Le Tourneur, who published two volumes of his translations of Shakespeare into French; and lastly by Ducis, who continued translating and finally got Shakespeare to the French stage. Voltaire couldn’t quite figure out what side of the argument he was on, first celebrating Shakespeare’s work, then denouncing it, and then saying, “Hey, I had that idea first!”

French Romanticism in theater and music (1830-1843) finally offered a brief window of appreciation for Shakespeare. Characteristics of this movement include feelings, emotion, and sensitivity; forces of nature; the spiritual and the supernatural; the humble; and the grotesque and the exotic—all very Shakespearean! Shakespeare’s plays influenced many great French Romantic playwrights, such as Hugo, Dumas père, Sand, and de Vigny. Still, Shakespeare remained best known in translation on the page, not the stage.

Finally, in 1867, Roméo et Juliette brought Shakespeare to the operatic stage in France. (Fun fact, Gounod was a student at the Paris Conservatoire and was greatly influenced by Berlioz’s dramatic symphonic treatment of Romeo and Juliet.) Gounod described being in ecstasy as he was writing the opera, and he was empowered by his librettists, who by then had plenty of Shakespeare translations to work with. Gounod, as he proclaimed in a letter to his wife, finally tamed the barbaric: “The finale of act three is resisting me—the big game is twitting me!—but in the hunt, it’s the exhilaration of running down the beast and taming it. The hunt, yes, it’s happy hunting! And when I catch and hold it, I will be contented.”