William Shakespeare. We’re all familiar with the English playwright’s impact on theatrical stages and English classrooms around the world. But Shakespeare’s impact over the past four centuries has also been translated to almost every other art form, including opera and musical theatre. There are hundreds of operas that have been composed based on Shakespeare’s plays—from Hamlet to The Merry Wives of Windsor, Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet. The latter has received the most operatic treatments, having been set by at least seven different composers, including Vaccai, Bellini, and Gounod, whose 1867 adaptation has become the most popular of the seven. Gounod’s treatment of the romantic tragedy stays true to the original story, while augmenting all of the dramatic energy with a lush, French Romantic score.
What is it that makes Shakespeare’s drama so singable? Well, it is—perhaps surprisingly—not the text itself. Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in blank verse iambic pentameter, much of which is not as easily sung in the context of an operatic aria. These lines were meant to be declared more than spoken, making a musical adaptation all but impossible. Instead of a direct setting, most composers instead created their own dramatic vehicles inspired by the stories of Shakespearean plays.
For Roméo et Juliette, Gounod and his librettists (Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) eliminated some of the scenes that didn’t deal with the love story, focusing the drama on the star-crossed lovers and their ultimate demise. They also slightly revised the final scene, giving the two lovers time to sing a final heartbreaking farewell to each other before succumbing to dagger and poison. A notable setting of Shakespeare’s actual text is Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960). Britten and his partner Peter Pears adapted Shakespeare’s original text into an adapted telling of the same story. They cut most of Shakespeare’s first act and shifted the focus more on the characters themselves.
Having originated in Italy around the same time as Shakepeare’s plays were being premiered, opera quickly became a natural vehicle to carry the stories and characters of the playwright’s well known dramas to new heights. The added element of music and vocalism only adds to the importance of these works, which will surely remain in our most treasured performance spaces for centuries to come.
Don’t miss your chance to hear Gounod’s enchanting music as we open the 36th Season with Romeo & Juliet. Tickets are on sale now and selling fast!