The Romeo and Juliet story, whether derived from Shakespeare or not, has been irresistible to composers. He are excerpts from four 19th century works and two 20th based on the doomed lovers.
First up is Bellini’s take on the two teenagers. His I Capuleti e i Montecchi is based on a play by Luigi Scevola written in 1818. The opera’s first performance was in 1830. Scevola’s play was in turn based on a variety of renaissance tales and hence not on Shakespeare. A lot of the opera’s music was based on the composer’s previous work Zaira (1829) which was a flop. Romeo is a trouser role for a mezzo. Eccomi in lieta vesta… Oh! quante volte is from act 1 scene. Giulietta laments the coming of an unwanted marriage. Anna Netrebko is the soprano. The recording was made during a staged performance in Paris in 2008. The opera’s final scene ends…well everyone knows how it ends. I think Bellini’s inspiration failed him here. Netrebko is joined by Elina Garanca.
Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet was based on Shakespeare’s play, to the extent that any piece of purely orchestral music can be said to be based on anything. It went through three versions between 1870 and 1886. It’s the third version that is routinely performed. The piece is as fine a work as the great Russian composer ever made. Both its dramatic intensity and melodic genius are unsurpassed. This performance is from the 2007 proms conducted by Valery Gergiev. The Russian maestro leads a taut and poetic rendition.
Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette is a dramatic symphony. Its structure owes a lot to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Much of the action is depicted solely in the orchestra. The love scene is entirely instrumental. This recording of the scene is under the direction of the great French maestro Charles Munch. I heard Munch conduct Berlioz at Tanglewood. He was a master of the Berlioz style. When Roméo et Juliette is heard live under a conductor who has mastered Berlioz’ music like Colin Davis it makes an impression which is beyond powerful. The work was first performed in Paris in 1839. It had a major influence on Wagner’s composition of Tristan und Isolde.
Gounod’s setting of the Shakespeare play is firmly established in the standard operatic repertory. Roméo et Juliette was first performed in Paris in 1867. It had made its way to New York by the end of the Met’s first season in April of 1884. It was the first French opera to be performed in French by the company. Its most recent appearance at the Met was last May when it was done for the 349th time placing it as the 23rd most often performed opera by the company.The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré follows Shakespeare’s play very closely. Juliette’s Waltz Song, Je veux vivre, is sung by Anna Netrebko. Now for something completely different, the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate made ‘Fantasies’ on operas which he used as display pieces for himself. The one from Carmen is played most often, but the Caprice sur Roméo et Juliette de Gounod for violin and orchestra Op.5 (1868) is also worth listening to. The violinist is Tianwa Yang.
Delius opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is almost never performed, but the interlude The Walk to the Paradise Garden between scenes 5 and six is often played in concert. The libretto is based on a Swiss short story. The opera was first performed in Berlin in German in 1907.
Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet was written in 1935. It originally had a happy ending. It was not premiered in Russia until 1940, though a one act version was staged in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Soviet version drastically altered Prokofiev’s original score which was not performed until 2008. I bought a Russian made two lp set about a dozen years after the 1940 premiere that I found in a bin in a small record shop near Times Square. It was in two paper sleeves and had no liner notes. I was very impressed by the music which at that time was virtually unknown in the West. It subsequently has entered the standard ballet repertory and, along with the three suites made from its music, is as familiar as the ballets of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky.
The two excerpts here are both played by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Yoel Levi. When the music is played as part of a staged version it never makes the impact that Prokofiev’s dazzling score does when played by an orchestra that’s not in a pit. This is especially true of Tybalt’s Death which is given an exceptionally vibrant readling by Levi. The same is true of the Clevelander’s playing of Romeo at the Grave. In fact, the music is so fine that I’d just as soon listen to it without the distraction of dancers – a view that will make me an outcast among my family.
While Romeo and Juliet is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays, its story is as irresistible to audiences as to composers and has inspired music that’s superior to its source.