By Suzanne Martinucci

At one point in the late 1990s, while I was an usher at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I was able to compare two very different pairs of singers in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet within two seasons of each other. Ruth Ann Swenson and Richard Leech, in the earlier season, were the “blonde” cast. These two Americans obviously relished singing together, and their golden looks and sunny personalities brought a youthful lightness and joy to the lovers’ interactions that neatly counterpointed the tragedy. Two seasons later, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu headed the “brunette” cast. Glamorous and intense, these two singers—who were married at the time—brought a genuine spark of romantic chemistry to their performances. I was intrigued by the persuasiveness of both pairings, and was drawn toward a greater acquaintance with this operatic version of a tale I felt I’d known nearly all my life.

Photo: Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Juliet and tenor Joshua Dennis as Romeo in the Minnesota Opera production of  Romeo and Juliet . Photo by Dan Norman.

Photo: Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Juliet and tenor Joshua Dennis as Romeo in the Minnesota Opera production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Dan Norman.

The classic story of the “star-cross’d lovers” has inspired artists across the spectrum of creative imagination, from orchestral fantasies to film, ballet, and the Broadway stage. A resounding success at its premiere, Gounod’s opera may now seem to us rather tame when compared to the searing heights reached by a Prokofiev or a Bernstein. Yet whenever I hear Jussi Björling’s rendition of “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” (one of the few that, to me, sounds as though Romeo is commanding—rather than imploring—the sun to rise), I am reminded of the passion that lies beneath the stylistic veneer of this French take on the story—the story of a love that perhaps can only happen to the very young, when every obstacle, every disappointment, can seem like a mortal threat.

Gounod himself evidently fell in love with the story and its musical possibilities when quite young himself. When he was about 16 and a student of Fromental Halévy at the Paris Conservatoire, Gounod attended a rehearsal of the Romeo and Juliet symphony by his idol, Hector Berlioz. Gounod was so affected by the music that he memorized a section of it and sought Berlioz out so that he could play it for him on the piano.

Other, later versions of the story may stress the youth of the protagonists; yet other versions, their passion. Still others (such as West Side Story) superbly exploit the violent discord between the two “families” amidst which the love story blossoms. In the Gounod opera, I am struck by the idealistic aspect of the young pair. Their romantic duets in the Balcony and Wedding Night scenes have a gentle lyricism and air of reverie that shows how, in each other’s presence, the rest of the world truly falls away. Librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (who also supplied Gounod’s Faust libretto, based on Goethe) often quote Shakespeare’s poetry directly. Gounod’s skills as a church musician, as well as his religious faith (he once seriously considered entering the priesthood), also notably enhance the score. These young lovers ask God’s forgiveness for their joint suicide before sinking into their last embrace—the final act of a love that truly transcends death.

Photo: Cincinnati audiences were thrilled by American tenor Richard Leech’s 1989 performances in Romeo and Juliet. In his book A Celebration of Cincinnati Opera, historian Charles Parsons called Leech’s performance of Romeo’s big aria “a highlight not just of the season, but of a lifetime of opera-going.”Photo by Philip Groshong

Suzanne Martinucci is a New York-based writer and lecturer on opera. She is a regular panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Quiz during the Toll Brothers Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts