January 17, 2016

How Gounod "Faust-icated" Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
painting by Frank Dicksee, 1884
When Giuseppe Verdi turned to Shakespeare, the writer he loved above all others, for his final two masterpieces, he had already lived a full life and amassed a fortune. Otello and Falstaff were labors of love; box-office success was not really an issue. That being the case, he was free: free to ignore the tastes of the public and focus his creative energy on being as faithful and true to the Bard as he could. This explains the fate of Falstaff, which has never achieved the popularity of Rigoletto or Aida despite the sublime nature of its quicksilver score.

In contrast, Charles Gounod's setting of Romeo and Juliet was created in an entirely different context, one in which commercial success was an imperative equal to artistic merit. A quick review of his operatic output prior to Romeo demonstrates his need for a successful production; it also reminds us that operatic composition is incredibly difficult and that the vast majority of operas fail.

The only well-received piece he could claim was Faust, and even that had fallen flat in the premiere production, only catching fire in subsequent stagings. Other than that, there was a list of operas that pleased no one: Sappho, La nonne saglante, Le médecin malgré lui, Philémon et Baucis, and a few others that bombed. Even Mireille, which began to find a niche spot in the repertoire in the 1940's, failed during Gounod's lifetime.

It's not hard to see the composer's battle plan for Romeo in the wake of continual discouragement. His goal was not Verdi's; that of using his gifts to channel the essence of Shakespeare's world. Rather, it was to turn a popular Shakespearean plot into the mold of Faust; to inject as many of the successful elements of Faust as possible into the new piece; to turn Shakespeare into the archetype of a popular 19th-century Romantic opera that would suit the tastes of his middle-class French audience.

He Faust-icated Romeo and Juliet. The result? I'm reminded of the expression coined by Stephen Colbert on his late, lamented "Colbert Report" show on the Comedy Channel: "truthiness". In that sense, compared to the Bard of Avon, Romeo and Juliet is, um, "Bardy". It has "Bardiness".

And it worked! The first performance in 1859, attended by tourists in town for the Paris Exhibition, was a glorious success, one that launched the opera on a giddy circuit of sold-out performances the world over. It's star has faded a bit since the 1800's, but not completely. Hey, Virginia Opera is now preparing it's second production in the past decade or so.

Here is a summary of how Romeo got Faust-isized and Faust-icated and ended up at least as Fausty as Bardy..

1. Oom-pah-pah in 4 part harmony

  • Act 2 of Faust ends with the villagers dancing a rousing waltz as the chorus sings of carefree pleasure.
  • In Romeo, the action begins with the Capulet ball (omitting Shakespeare's opening scene of the street brawl between servants of the feuding families). Surprise, surprise: the guests dance a rousing waltz as the chorus sings of carefree pleasure.
In both cases, the waltz was a shrewd choice, as Europe was in the throes of waltz-fever thanks to the Strauss family. The mania for waltzing was a horse any opera composer would have been advised to ride.

2. "I enjoy being a girl"
  • In the Garden Scene of Faust, Marguerite discovers the gift of jewels left at her door and, having adorned herself, sings the "Jewel Song" in which, probably for the first time in her life, she revels in feeling pretty and feminine. Oh, and it's another waltz tune.
  • Back at the Capulet's ball, Juliet's first aria "Je veux vivre" again uses waltz-time to express girlish joy at being young.
By the way, Shakespeare's Juliet never says anything like that, which means that in West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim followed Gounod and not Shakespeare when they assigned Maria the number "I feel pretty".

3. Sweet and mellow tenorial love
The tenor arias in both operas are close cousins. Faust's "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" and Romeo's "Ah, Lève-toi, soleil" are both blissful expressions of anticipated love immediately preceding a love duet. The melodic styles are closely related, opting for sweetness and gentleness rather than the raw passion of a Cavaradossi or a Manrico. You can imagine Gounod thinking "If they liked that one, they're gonna love this one!"

4. Garden vs. balcony
  • The love duet in Act 3 of Faust sees the tenor approaching the home of the soprano in full wooing mode, fending off distractions in the guise of comical banter between Mephistopheles and the elderly Marthe.
  • The Act 2 love duet in Romeo finds the tenor approaching the home of the soprano in full wooing mode, fending off distractions in the guise of the elderly nurse Gertrude bantering with a chorus of Capulet men.
5. Love those women in pants
  • Act 3 of Faust begins with a highly singable solo in popular style for Siebel, the boy who has a crush on Marguerite. The character is written as a pants role; a light mezzo in male clothing.
  • This is Gounod's most blatant and obvious instance of Faust-ification: he creates the role of Stephano, a young boy who sings a song (in highly singable popular style) to taunt the Capulets; an action that incites the violence that will take two lives. This character does not exist in Shakespeare!
6. When baritones lose sword fights
  • Act 4 of Faust sees the baritone character Valentin, brother of Marguerite, engage in sword-play with Faust, accompanied by dashing descriptive music in the orchestra, He dies, cursing his sister. The villagers sing an extended choral lament.
  • When Romeo declines to fight a duel with Tybalt, Mercutio takes his place. Their fight is depicted with dashing descriptive music in the orchestra. Mercutio dies, famously cursing both the Capulets and the Montagues. The villagers sing an extended choral lament.
Here, Gounod was fortunate. The fight scene in Shakespeare lends itself gracefully to the Faust formula without seeming forced.

To appreciate Gounod's Romeo and Juliet it's important to realize both what it is, and what it isn't. Rather than cast aspersions on the composer for the liberties taken with Shakespeare (and Faust-ification is just the beginning of those liberties), let's put ourselves in his position. The truth is that he was a child of his times with an audience that wanted what they wanted. In accommodating their hunger for refined, lyrical entertainment he left us with a richly melodic, sturdily-constructed piece that offers distinct pleasures, even if it's Gounod-ishness exceeds its Bardiness. Not many operatic adaptations of Shakespeare have succeeded; this one certainly has.

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