An opera of duets Roméo et Juliette
Music by Charles Gounod. Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré after William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Premiere: April 27, 1867, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris. Sung in French.
Charles Gounod was born in 1818 into the world of the arts. His father was a painter and engraver, carrying on the profession of his own father and grandfather. His mother was a pianist, and after Gounod’s father died, when Charles was only four, she supported the family by giving music lessons. Young Gounod might have followed either of their artistic inclinations, and for quite a few years he wavered between pursuing art or music as a career — or maybe neither, because the church also beckoned, and for a while he seriously contemplated entering the priesthood. Music won out. Prepared by a solid education at the Paris Conservatoire, Gounod was awarded the Prix de Rome in music, a coveted seal of approval for all emerging French composers at that time. The artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres observed that Gounod might just as easily have won a Prix de Rome in fine arts, so impressive were his parallel accomplishments in that field.
Gounod came of age at a time when Romanticism was sweeping through music, much as it had through literature a generation before. “Romanticism,” wrote the novelist Stendhal in 1823, “is the art of presenting people with literary works that, given the current state of their habits and beliefs, are likely to give them the greatest possible pleasure. Classicism, on the other hand, presents them with the literature that gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grandparents.” A corollary of the new French enthusiasm was a surge in interest in the works of Shakespeare, whom they viewed as a proto-Romantic. No plays of the Bard were published in French until 1745, when 10 of them were released in translations by Pierre Antoine de la Place. A complete French edition of Shakespeare waited until 17761783, when Pierre Letourneur’s translation appeared in 20 volumes, but the pace picked up in the 19th century. Further “complete Shakespeares” were undertaken by François-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot (a revision of Letourneur’s rendering, published in 1821), Benjamin Laroche (1839), Francisque Michel (1839-40), and François-Victor Hugo (son of a more famous father), whose volumes were published sequentially from 1859 to 1866. Various individual plays were also translated into French during those years, including a version of Romeo and Juliet penned jointly by the poets Alfred de Vigny and Emile Deschamps, for a planned production at the Comédie Française that never materialized.
For these early translators, rendering Shakespeare for French readers and actors was a creative act that allowed them to take considerable liberties. There was nothing new in that. English-speaking audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries were characteristically served up adapted versions of Shakespeare. What must rate as the all-time most influential Parisian run of Romeo and Juliet took place in 1827, when a visiting troupe led by actor-manager Charles Kemble presented the play, in English, in an abridged adaptation that starred, in the leading female role, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. In the audience was Hector Berlioz, who had already been thunderstruck a couple of nights earlier when the same players performed Hamlet, with Miss Smithson as Ophelia. “As I came out of Hamlet, shaken to the depths by the experience, I vowed not to expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius,” he wrote in his Memoirs. But when the posters went up announcing Romeo and Juliet, he decided to return after all “to steep myself in the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that immense love, swift as thought, burning as lava, radiantly pure as an angel’s glance, imperious, irresistible, the raging hatreds, the wild ecstatic kisses, the desperate strife of love and death contending for mastery — it was too much. … I may add that at that time I did not know a word of English. I could only glimpse Shakespeare darkly through the mists of Letourneur’s translation; the splendour of the poetry which gives a whole new glowing dimension to his glorious works was lost on me.” In any case, he fell instantly in love with both Shakespeare and Smithson. He would go on to wed Harriet Smithson (unhappily; probably in his fertile mind he imagined himself marrying Juliet), and he produced a stream of works on Shakespearean subjects. One of the summits of his catalog is his