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.

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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

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