Romeo and Juliet

Program notes by Paul Zweifel

copyright 2003

Romeo and Juliet was probably Shakespeare's tenth play (the chronology is not 100 per cent certain) and certainly his first tragedy;1 its most likely date is 1592. It is not a tragedy in the same vein as his plays like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth written some 10 years later,2 all of which depict conflict between good and evil. There are actually no evil characters in Romeo and Juliet, no Lady Macbeths, Iagos or Edmunds; the conflict is rather between love and hate than good and evil. And fate also plays its own crucial role.

Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague were members of families which had been feuding for many years. The play does not cite the origin of the feud. but by going to earlier sources such as an Italian play by Luigi Da Porta one can reasonably surmise that the conflict was part of the ongoing battle between the Ghibellines and the Guelfs. (The Ghibellines were supporters of the Holy Roman emperor and the Guelfs supporters of the Pope in the centuries-old struggle between the Germans and Italians for temporal power.) Bellini, in his opera I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (presumably based on Da Porta) makes this explicit: the Capuleti are Guelfs, the Montecchi Ghibellines. The conflict between these clans is also referred to by Dante in Purgatorio VI as a Guelph-Ghibelline feud, so the two families actually existed and the actions described in the plays and operas might well have been based on real events. This all most likely took place in  the 13th century, when the G-G wars, as they are sometimes called, were at their height.

The story line of Gounod's opera (unlike Bellini's) follows the Shakespeare play quite closely with a number of differences introduced for mainly operatic reasons. For example, the most famous musical number in the opera, Juliet's first act waltz aria "Ah, je veux vivre," has no Shakesperean counterpart. And in the final scene in the tomb the two star-crossed lovers die together, Romeo of the poison he has taken thinking Juliet dead and Juliet from stabbing herself. (After all, what would a Romantic opera be without a death scene?) In the play Juliet wakes from her drug-induced coma to find Romeo dead and then she commits suicide.

And some of the play's scenes have been omitted for the sake of brevity. The play has Romeo going from Verona to Mantua (some 20 miles away) after being exiled by the Prince for killing Tybalt. (In the opera the Prince is demoted to Duke.) Friar Laurence, who has provided the sleeping potion to Juliet, sends his colleague Friar John to inform Romeo of the ruse. However Friar John comes in contact with some plague victims and is quarantined, never arriving in Mantua. So Romeo, whose servant Balthasar has come from Verona to inform his master of Juliet's demise, has no way of knowing the truth. Later, when Friar John informs Friar Laurence that the fateful letter has never been delivered, the latter rushes to the tomb fearing the worst, arriving just too late after having stumbled over a gravestone in the dark. These scenes help to introduce a second machina into the play, namely the workings of fate (hence "star-crossed lovers") but true to the tradition of Romantic opera Gounod has chosen to concentrate on the love-hate conflict in the plot.

Perhaps the most important omission, however, is the play's final scene, in which the Capulets and Montagues, sobered by the death of their children, agree to end the feud. This sets a moral compass for the play, missing in the opera. But then operas, especially Romantic operas, always have to end with someone's death. (This act of repentence accounts for Dante's placing the two families in Purgatory rather than in Hell.)

Juliet is the youngest operatic heroine that I can think of, only 13. (Her father, in Act I, Scene ii of the play, says to Paris "My child is yet a stranger in the world; She hath not seen the change of fourteen summers.") By comparison, Butterfly is 15, Manon 16 and Papagena 18. (There are younger characters, like Gretel, but they are children.) In those days 13 was not as young as it is today; girls were routinely married off upon reaching puberty since they were considered commodities by their families. Romeo is also very young, or at least Bellini thought so since he assigned the role to a mezzo-soprano.

This opera is being presented by Opera Roanoke as a multi-media venture in which opera, ballet and poetry are combined in a sort of Wagnerian gesamtkuntswerk. The performance actually begins with a narration of Shakespeare's prologue to Act I, which may have been the first Shakespearean sonnet3 ever published. There are two more sonnets in the play, namely the prologue to Act II and a dialogue in Act I, scene v, between Romeo and Juliet when they first fall in love. It begins

Romeo [to Juliet]: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

                and ends with the couplet:

                    Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
                   Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

              (Note the pun on the word "prayer," a typical Shakespeare touch.) This sonnet
              is reproduced verbatim in the supertitles. In fact, wherever possible, Shakespeare's
              own words have been utilized in tht titles; separate translations have been introduced
              only where the opera's text deviates substantially from the play's.
1. Titus Andronicus, the first "Shakespeare play" was probably written by someone else. At any rate, it                    hardly merits the term "tragedy" because it is utterly repulsive, having been described as "…a perfect slaughter house…it reeks of blood…it is so gross." (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, W.G. Clark and W. Aldis Wright, eds. Volume 1. Page 1.)

2.Three of these plays have been made into operas: Othello by Rossini and, more famously, by Verdi; Macbeth by Verdi; and Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Verdi had also planned to write an opera based on King Lear but never got around to it, presumably because of the lack of an appropriate libretto. And besides Gounod's there are at least three Italian operas that tell the story of Romeo and Juliet, by Bellini, Nicola Vaccai and Riccardo Zandonai

3. A 14-line poem in iambic pentameter with rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.