January 10, 2016

Sleepless in Verona - Charles Gounod's Rom-Com

Your Humble Blogger is back after taking a few weeks off for the holidays. My next several posts will be devoted to the third production of Virginia Opera's current season, Gounod's lyrical Shakespearean piece Romeo and Juliet. (Though the opera is sung in French, our marketing materials employ the familiar English version of the title, so I'm going with that. Excusez-moi.)
Romeo Hanks?
(photo by Alan Light)

Is it weird that, as I began to re-study the score, I found myself thinking of the Nora Ephron film Sleepless in Seattle? That was the first of two films pairing Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan. No, Shakespeare's drama is not a romantic comedy (although it greatly plays like one until the final act); it's a legitimate tragedy. And no, the plot doesn't exactly resemble Romeo, but there are points of comparison that are kind of fun to observe. One Hanks-Ryan moment in particular provides insight into one of the love duets. Having said that, there's actually a reminder of another movie Rom-Com: Four Weddings and a Funeral, with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. Given the structure of Gounod's libretto, couldn't he have called it Four Duets and a Funeral? But on with the Sleepless discussion.

The last six minutes of the movie simultaneously appear to reference the end of the opera as well as the lovers' first meeting. I'm thinking of the moment when Annie (Ryan), having hoped that Sam (Hanks) would meet her at the top of the Empire State Building, decides that he's not coming after all and dejectedly enters the "down" elevator. Just as the doors close on her car, the elevator doors on the right open, ushering in Sam and his son. This is "star-crossed" timing indeed, making us think (if we know our Shakespeare) of Juliet waking up from her drug-induced coma just in time to see Romeo expire from the poison he took in the belief that she was dead.

Of course, Sleepless in Seattle is a comedy, so Ephron wisely has Sam and Joshua come back up to retrieve the boy's backpack, allowing the fateful meeting to happen after all. It's not "cheating" in terms of drama, because Nora Ephron isn't trying to re-write Shakespeare. Gounod? Yeah, he cheats a little, allowing Romeo to hang on long enough for a fourth (and oh-so-final) love duet. Why? Because - love duet! Gotta have a sad 'n' tragic duet, right?

Right. It's OPERA.

But what happens after Sam and Joshua's return also brings to bear on Gounod's opera, in my opinion. Annie and Sam, remember, have never met before, not counting fleeting glimpses at airports and on city streets. So they do not rush into each other's arms for a big passionate juicy kiss at the end of the movie. Besides, Sam's little kid is there - it's not the time or the place for an R-rated love scene. Instead, they pass a couple of minutes without saying much, more or less staring at each other in a kind of besotted wonder, with implied thought-balloons of "Wow, it's really him..." "Wow, it's really her...". Finally, again eschewing (or rather delaying) passion, Sam tentatively offers Annie his hand, and she gently takes it.

So why am I recapping the end of a Hollywood comedy? Because it reminds me of "Ange adorable", the first of Gounod's duets, a moment that follows Shakespeare fairly faithfully. Having espied Juliet at the Capulet's ball, Romeo takes her aside and expresses his admiration and attraction. As in the film, this initial meeting is marked by a certain formality; each party is clearly staring at the other in frank and mutual wonder and appreciation. There are no declarations of passion and desire. And just as Sam's first gesture toward Annie is to gently take her hand, with the camera zeroing in on a closeup shot of their fingers touching, so Romeo gallantly sings in a similar vein:

Adorable angel,
my guilty hand
profanes, by daring to touch it,
the divine hand
which I imagine
no one has the right to approach!

A little shy, a little reserved, but clearly ga-ga with the lightning bolt of instant infatuation. That's Romeo, that's Sam, and - by the way - that was also the Beatles, who charmed millions of girls by earnestly singing "I wanna hold your hand" back in the sixties, perhaps the most "proper" love ballad in the rock and roll canon.

I'm making a big deal out of this analogy because it might help opera-lovers who don't know the Gounod Romeo very well to better appreciate "Ange adorable". Don't dismiss this duet because it's not exciting and passionate. In context, it's exactly right for the stage of Romeo and Juliet's relationship. The four duets will trace the arc and journey of that relationship. What wouldn't work would be to aim for each duet to be throbbing with passion - that would get old. All we're looking for in the first of their "hookups" is that sense of wonder and reserve.

That pretty much does it for commonalities between the movie and the opera, although I guess one could stretch the point and claim that Annie's fiance Walter is the Paris figure in my analogy and Sam's dead wife Maggie then corresponding to the unseen Rosalind, the woman Romeo loves before seeing Juliet. Like Rosalind, Maggie is unattainable for Sam (though for a different reason!) and causes Sam to do a lot of Romeo-ish brooding and moping. When Sam first glimpses Annie in the Seattle airport, he is clearly thinking something along the lines of "She doth teach the torches to burn bright".

Yeah, Maggie as Rosalind: that's definitely stretching things a bit. But that's what I do!

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