Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gounod (and Shakespeare and Bernstein) in Love: Through the years with Roméo et Juliette

(This essay appeared in the program book of Opera Company of Brooklyn's concert performance of Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod. I am indebted to the writings and scholarship of Professor Jeffrey Langford, Assistant Dean for Doctoral Studies and Chair of the Music History Department at Manhattan School of Music. With Dr. Langford’s permission, I have included several sections of his chapter, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: Rewriting Shakespeare,  from his engaging book, Evenings At The Opera, Amadeus Press, NY, 2011. Professor Langford’s sections are acknowledged where they appear.   VPD)
Charles Gounod in 1859,
the year of  Ave Maria
and the premier of Faust
    Is French opera, like truffles and foie gras, an acquired taste? If French opera is qualitatively  different from its Italian and German siblings, and it is, it most certainly contains its own unique and undeniable charms. Those who have been brought up and schooled in the lively and melodic world of Italian opera, with its rhythmic cadence and recitative, its easily rhyming vowel-rich language and its showy, florid and ornamented arias, the folksy but noble German Singspiel tradition, or the power and intensity of Wagnerian opera, should take the time to enjoy the nuanced and refined flavors of the French form. For French opera is indeed one of the world's great and enduring operatic traditions, beginning with the seventeenth century Baroque masterpieces of Rameau, Charpentier and Lully, which led to the highly stylized operas of Christoph Willibald von Gluck in the eighteenth century, and later, those of Luigi Cherubini. These works were followed by the establishment of the grand French operatic style by Gioacchino Rossini, whose Guillaume Tell (William Tell) singularly begat the genre, and the subsequent and splendid opéras lyrique and comique of George Bizet and Jacques Offenbach.

     That specific operatic style, termed grand opéra in French, was taken to its artistic heights in the mid-1800s in the majestic works of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Hector Berlioz.  French grand opéra contained everything that the adjective "grand" suggests: noble and heroic dramas with themes that explicate deep and basic truths, large orchestras with even larger casts outfitted with over-the-top costumes acting on splendorous stages and outsized sets (at the Paris Opéra), and to top it off, something quintessentially French, lots and lots of of ballet interludes.  It remains more than a curiosity, though, that the grandest of these grands opéras français were written by foreigners - Meyerbeer was German, and Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi, the latter whose five-act  (and over four hour !) opera  Don Carlos was arguably the most iconic French grand opéra of all, were Italian.

     It was into this rich and nationalistic operatic tradition that Charles Gounod found himself.  Gounod was born in Paris in 1818, of a pianist mother and an artist father. He graduated from the Paris Conservatoire in 1839, beginning his career as a church organist. He had some early successes composing sacred music, notably a Messe Solennelle (Solemn Mass), first performed in 1854. Gounod was particularly drawn to the music of two earlier composers, Giovanni Palestrina and J.S. Bach, and it was to a setting of a Bach work (the C major prelude BWV 846) that Gounod wrote his famous Ave Maria in 1859. However, his attention had already begun to turn to opera, having been convinced by his good friend, the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, that composing operatic music would be a surer (and perhaps quicker) way to fame and fortune.

(Professor Langford):  "Gounod’s first attempts at this new genre took the form of grand opéra in the style of Meyerbeer, the reigning king of serious French opera in the middle of the nineteenth century. But Gounod soon found he had little predilection for this style of opera, so he quickly switched tracks and invented a new kind of opera that relied less on scenic spectacle and massed choral effects, concentrating on the musical exploration of individual characters. This new, more personal kind of opera was called opéra lyrique, and its first manifestation was Faust in 1859. These operas were first staged at a new theater in Paris, the Théâtre Lyrique  (Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet), designed as a venue that would be an alternative to both the large scale serious works at the Paris Opéra and to the lightweight comedies produced at the Opéra Comique (Salle Favart).1  "

    In 1859, that same year of his Ave Maria, Gounod made an indelible mark with what would become his magnum opus, his opera Faust, a work which he composed with the librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier to a text by Goethe. Faust made Gounod quite famous and very wealthy, akin to a nineteenth century Richard Rogers or Andrew Lloyd Weber. Faust was and remains the most performed opera in France, even more popular than Bizet’s Carmen, and in France alone has enjoyed almost three thousand performances since its premier. Gounod soon followed up this great triumph with two more popular and successful operas; the first was a little known work, Mireille in 1864, and the second was the sublime masterpiece which Gounod finished in 1867, Roméo et Juliette.

   Given that Gounod again had the same talented and effective team of Carré and Barbier as his librettist partners was certainly a good omen that these two operas would be just as successful as Faust. For their part, Carré and Barbier chose well their subject matter for that second opera, the theme of undying and tragic love.  They settled on the story of Romeo and Juliet, which had earlier in the century  already  seen  musical fame with Giovanni Bellini’s 1830 bel canto masterpiece, I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and The Montagues) and with Berlioz’ dramatic choral symphony of 1839, Roméo e Juliette. Gounod was already very taken by Berlioz’ music, and paid homage to Berlioz in his own opera with a similar compositional style, melodic allusions and thematic rhythm. (Berlioz also preceded Gounod with a composition in 1828 on the Faust legend, which was a “dramatic legend” (or “concert opera”) entitled  Le Damnation de Faust ).

(Professor Langford):  "The first indication of Gounod’s appreciation of Berlioz and of his homage of the symphonic Roméo et Juliette occurs at the very beginning of his (Gounod’s) opera. It begins, like Berlioz’ symphony, with what might be described as a programmatic overture, an overture that depicts, through instruments alone, an important dramatic element in the story: the opening street battle in Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play…. Beyond the similarity of the two overtures lies another far more striking parallel between Gounod’s opera and Berlioz’ symphony; their inclusion of Shakespeare’s Prologue, which includes those famous lines at the very opening of the play:1  "
Two households both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona where we lay our scene)
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean1
    Indeed the closest and most direct inspiration for the Roméo et Juliette story, which Carré and Barbier adapted as the libretto for Gounod, was William Shakespeare’s 1595 tragic play Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Berlioz, Carré and Barbier hewed very closely to Shakespeare’s version of the tale of the star-crossed lovers, employing in many places the French translation of the exact lines of the Bard of Avon. 

    Yet the original source of the story of Romeo and Juliet dates back much farther, over a century earlier, to a serpentine series of adaptions of an original 1476 Italian novella entitled "Mariotto and Giannozza" by the pseudonymous Masuccio Salernitano.  Salernitano (1410 – 1475), whose real name was Tomasso Guardati, was born in Sorrento, near Naples, Italy As Wiki tells us, Guardati gained much fame from the publication of his book Il Novellino (The Beginner), which contained fifty short stories, essentially a series of morality fables, the thirty-third of which was the tale of two adolescent lovers, titled Mariotta e Gianozza. This story was subsequently renamed and adapted by Luigi da Porto in the early 1500s as Giulietta e Romeo, ossia, Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (Juliet and Romeo, or, A newly rediscovered history concerning two noble lovers).  Da Porto’s work begat another version, this time by a certain Matteo Bandello, which in turn inspired the poet Arthur Brooke to do an English translation in 1562 called “The Tragicall  Historye (sic) of Romeus and Juliet,” which was (finally!) the source that was pivotal to Shakespeare, who read it and  adapted as a play, Romeo and Juliet, finishing his manuscript in 1595.

    Even though Carré’s and Barbier’s libretto hewed close to the original Shakespeare, they were obligated in many places to cut large sections out of the play  to fit the much fewer words needed for the operatic arias and to blend specific words with the music that Gounod was composing.  This in turn led to excising several important scenes from the play, and to meld other scenes together. For example, Carré and Barbier repositioned certain events that occur at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s work and placed them as a group in a party scene that starts the opera. They also wrote some new text for Juliet to sing at the point where she says is considering wedding a suitor named Count Paris, for which Gounod responded with a brilliant aria.

(Professor Langford):  "Juliet says no to marriage because she wants to live the intoxicating dream of youth a little longer. For this new text, Gounod penned the famous aria “Je veux vivre,” a brilliant waltz tune, and one of the most popular arias he ever wrote. And no one seems to care that it is not exactly in keeping with the character of Shakespeare’s Juliet.1  "

     The framework of Roméo et Juliette, its “backbone” as Professor Langford suggests, is built upon the four “duets” between the two lovers. These are more correctly termed arias, in which each singer alternates their feelings for the other in song. This is particularly evident in the Act 2 balcony scene (the one with Shakespeare’s famous lines “But soft, what light through bedroom window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun!”) It is a testament to Gounod’s skill as a musical dramatist, much like his older colleague and mentor Berlioz, to have been able to impart such passion and intensity of feeling with simple melodies for these arias. And in so doing, Gounod perpetuated a compositional style, directly inherited from Berlioz,  that continued an important aspect of French Romantic music through the nineteenth century.  Gounod brilliantly uses these various melodies in Roméo et Juliette as leitmotifs (recurrent motifs) which reappear throughout the opera, especially in the sublime fourth act bedroom scene and the climactic fifth act tomb scene.

(Professor Langford): "The repetition of this theme in the tomb scene recalls all the earlier scenes in which it played a prominent part – the prologue and the bedroom scene. The tomb scene thus unites all of the opera’s dramatic themes through this special music: irrational hatred in the prologue, and transcendent love in the bedroom scene. Through the power of music, these themes of hatred and love are juxtaposed here in the tomb scene with the theme of death, in a way that draws connections between all three as only opera can do.1  "
(Professor Langford): " By uniting the themes of joy, sacrifice and death in this one tortured moment, Gounod paraphrases the common Romantic understanding of the ecstasy of death, especially death through sacrifice. In this context, the sacrifice of a life produces a joyous release from the pain of uncomprehending world. Romeo and Juliet are only fully able to realize their shared joy in a shared death that releases them from a world of hate. The opera then draws to a close as Juliet stabs herself to a final repetition of the “sacrifice” theme. Here in the tomb scene, these elaborate musical allusions to other moments in the drama form a complex web of melodic relationships that unify the various dramatic themes of the story in a single tragic denouement.
(Professor Langford): " In recognizing the numerous dramatic themes that run through the Romeo and Juliet story, Gounod astutely called on music to underscore those themes and their connections for his audience. In building the final duet on so much music from earlier in the opera, he created poignant emotional associations that ordinary spoken drama cannot bring to the stage.1
    The Romeo and Juliet theme has remained fresh, vital and relevant through the centuries.  There are the two classical music favorites  that were inspired by the Shakespeare play - the familiar tone poem by Tchaikovsky of 1886, and a brilliant ballet by Prokofiev, first performed in 1935. The story was very successfully resurrected numerous times in the mid-1900s. The tale was re-fashioned as a New York City-centric 50’s love story of the hero and heroine of two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in their 1957 Tony Award-winning musical West Side Story, which contains, inter alia, the anthemic songs “Maria” and “America.” In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli made his vision of Romeo and Juliet into an Oscar-winning film.  Two years later, Erich Segal re-adapted the Romeo and Juliet tale into an Academy award-nominated film as well as a highly successful book, Love Story, and followed that up in 1977 with another book and a film sequel, Oliver’s Story. The theme song to Segal’s Love Story, Where do I begin,” birthed innumerable covers, from the likes of Tony Bennett and Andy Williams, to Shirley Bassey and Nana Moskouri among many others . That same Romeo and Juliet theme has gone on to inspire innumerable pop music songs, such as The Reflections' doo-wop–inflected "Just Like Romeo and Juliet, " Taylor Swift's "Love Story," and the Dire Straits'
Romeo and Juliet.”

    The timeless tale of Romeo and Juliet and their devotion to each other shines on brilliantly. And why should it not?  The concept of omnia vincit amor, that “love conquers all,” is indeed an enduring maxim and a much needed balm to heal the wounds of hatred that still exist around the world, in these difficult times that we live in.

1Langford, J., Chapter 10: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette: Rewriting Shakespeare, in Evenings At The Opera. New York, Amadeus Press, 2011, pp. 155-171.

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

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