Standing Out in a Crowd: Gounod's 'Romeo and Juliet'

Soprano Marina Rebeka as JulietWhile you might not think so, Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, based on the play by Shakespeare, is one of the rarest things in opera.

Over the centuries, Romeo and Juliet has inspired all kinds of music. There are songs, symphonic poems, Broadway musicals and film scores.

In the Broadway category the most famous example must be West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Stephen Sondheim. That show, in turn, has spawned countless "covers" of its hit tunes, in all manner of musical guises.

Among the many films inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy, the one with the most famous music is probably the version by Franco Zeffirelli. The movie's score, by Nino Rota, was a star all on its own, with its famous "Love Theme" that also became the hit song, "A Time for Us."

There's also plenty of classical music inspired by the play, including the familiar tone poem by Tchaikovsky, a brilliant ballet by Sergei Prokofiev, and a unique dramatic score for chorus and orchestra by Berlioz.

Still, against all expectations, Gounod's opera is a genuinely rare bird. There are hundreds of Shakespeare operas -- including two dozen or more based on Romeo and Juliet. But, astonishingly, of all those "R & J" operas, Gounod's is really the only one that has stuck in the repertory. Frederick Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet has plenty of beautiful moments, yet is rarely seen on stage. There's also a popular version of the story by Bellini, The Capulets and the Montagues.

But, technically, that one doesn't count; it does tell the familiar tale of star crossed lovers, but it's not based on Shakespeare. So, when it comes to lasting success, Gounod's operatic setting of Shakespeare's great tragedy stands virtually alone.

When Gounod turned his attention to Romeo and Juliet in 1867 he'd already scored a big hit with another ambitious, literary adaptation -- an opera based on Goethe's Faust. So for Romeo and Juliet he collaborated with the same librettists he worked with on the earlier opera: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

The two writers stuck fairly close to the original play by Shakespeare, though there are some changes. Barbier and Carré discarded a few scenes that don't deal directly with the two lovers. They also tweaked the ending. In the play, when Juliet finally awakens in the tomb, Romeo is already dead. When she wakes up in the opera, Romeo still has a few flickers of life -- enough for the two to sing a final duet before Juliet stabs herself and they die together.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Gounod's Romeo and Juliet from the Vienna State opera. The acclaimed Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez stars as Romeo, alongside Latvia soprano Marina Rebeka as Juliet, in a production led by conductor Marco Armiliato.