A member of my family—my dear Uncle John—is an actor, and he's done quite a bit of Shakespeare acting in his career. I've seen him in King Lear, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest. I'd say I've seen an above-average amount of live Shakespeare, which is why I'm so excited for Lyric Opera's production of Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette! He was also our Franz in The Sound of Music, definitely not Shakespeare! The performing arts is a bit of a family affair in my family, but I digress.
Opera vs. Theater
The centuries-old tale of Romeo and Juliet is a pillar of storytelling, and Charles Gounod serves this famous story well. The structure of Shakespeare's plays has often struck me as reminiscent of opera. Scenes unfold as duets, monologues, quartets/trios, and large action numbers with the entire cast. Operas unfold similarly; duets, arias (monologues), quartets/trios, and large chorus numbers help tell the story and add a musical layer that heightens the drama.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet premiered in 1597, the same year that Jacopo Peri premiered Dafne (which many consider the first opera). These two forms of staged art developed and evolved simultaneously. On mainland Europe, theatre meant “opera.” On the British Isles, it meant spoken word stage plays, often accompanied by incidental music. Eventually, “opera” as a separate staged art form made its way across the English Channel and was adopted by British composers, famously by Henry Purcell and later George Frederic Handel. All art forms are connected; they don't exist in silos. This evolution of forms in the British Isles explains the never-ending obsession with defining musical theatre vs. opera in the English-speaking world. Where our ballet friends fit in, I'll leave it to somebody else to decide!
But for today, let's look at how composers adapt the height of the dramatic arc of the story, Tybalt's death. Why would Romeo kill his lover's beloved cousin? I admit that this part of the story always mystified me, even in Bernstein's adaptation, West Side Story. But I've come to realize that it speaks to how irrational we can be when we are young. Now, I didn't kill my lover's cousin when I was young, but I certainly made some bad decisions when I was younger; anybody can relate to that feeling. Two of my favorite adaptions of Romeo and Juliet are Gounod's opera and Prokofiev's ballet, and they both create tremendous music at this moment in the story that heightens the drama to even greater effect than just the straight play.
The music here is classic Prokofiev; the orchestral hits at the start of this passage are timed with the dancers, and the listener can hear violence; it's shocking music to match an appalling scene.
“Day of mourning, of horror and fear.” INDEED! With opera, we get some text to help conceptualize the horror of what has just happened. Romeo realizes his mistake, and the impulsivity he has succumbed to, and Gounod is expertly setting us up for the next act of the opera, where all this will have to be resolved. Gounod was a very religious and Catholic man, and he opted to include powerful, cathedral-like choral writing at this moment, preceded by one of the best moments in the score for Romeo—a true reflection on senseless violence that could easily be included in a Catholic Mass.
These two clips illustrate how different composers from different periods and different staged art forms can communicate the same dramatic moment. Even if you've seen Romeo and Juliet in a million different ways, there is always a new way to experience this timeless tale that speaks to our shared human experience.