Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette:” A PeaceBang Review

I saw The Met’s Encore beautiful production of Gounod’s opera at the Revere Cinema last night. The singing was exquisite, and although I didn’t totally like Bartlett Scher’s directorial decisions (muddling the focus in the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, for instance), the leads Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo sang gorgeously. I didn’t see much “white hot” chemistry between them, as Grigolo is a bit of a ham bone, but I sit in total awe of these artists. It’s very hard to calibrate a performance for the live Met audience that won’t come across as too bold for the HD cameras. I adore the Met; it is a temple of the gods to me, and I am grateful to be able to be a Met audience from the comfort of my local movie theatre for $28.

What I want to focus on is not the music of the opera (not my favorite, sorry Monsieur Gounod) but the devastating tragedy of the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

You thought Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juiet” was tragic? Believe it or not, it GETS WORSE in this adaptation, and I haven’t seen any critics mention how or why, and I feel the need to talk about it.

We all know that lovers die at the end of the play. R+ J fall in love, secretly wed, and then got caught up in the violence dividing their families. In a rage following Tybalt’s murder of his dear friend Mercutio, Romeo drives a blade into the young Capulet (Juliet’s cousin) and is banished for his crime (he could have been put to death, but the Prince of Verona is a good guy).

Romeo and Juliet have one night of conjugal bliss before Romeo has to flee. Juliet’s parents (Lady Capulet has no role in the opera — such a shame, too) muscle her into marrying their choice, Paris (a guy, not the city). Juliet understandably freaks out (she’s already married! And yuck, Paris!) and runs to Friar Lawrence, the good but in-over-his-head cleric who married the two lovers. He has a plan. She can drink a dangerous potion that will put her into a coma for 24 hours or so. She’ll be interred in the Capulet’s family crypt. Meanwhile, Friar Larry will send a message to Romeo to meet her in the tomb, where they’ll be reunited and can escape together.

All goes according to plan until Romeo finds out about Juliet’s death before Friar Lawrence can get to him. Romeo buys poison, rushes to the Capulet’s tomb to hold his darling one last time, sees Juliet there on her bier and kills himself. Juliet wakes with a panicky Friar Lawrence hovering around realizing his plan has taken a horrible turn. The friar, tending to the barely awake girl, hears Capulets approaching the crypt outside and runs away (And who can forget Milo O’Shea in the 1960 Zeffirelli film bleating, “I dare no longer stay! I dare no longer stay!”). Juliet fully wakes, sees Romeo there dead, and stabs herself to death. It’s horrible. Just horrible.

However, there are witnesses. The family busts into the tomb and finds the bodies of the star-crossed lovers there and they are chagrined. They are brought to their senses by grief. We are left to understand that the centuries old enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues ends with this final senseless destruction of two of their beautiful kids. Presumably Friar Lawrence does a lot of pastoral care and everyone is instructed by this tragedy. The death of Juliet and Romeo has some redeeming purpose.

In the opera, however, there is no redemption, and I was not ready for Barbier and Carrés different ending.

In the opera, Juliet drinks the potion, goes into the tomb (and Scher’s staging of her entombment as a wedding night ritual with ladies-in-waiting, including Lady Death, was deeply upsetting and effective) and Romeo bursts in as  per Shakespeare. He drinks the poison and then Juliet wakes before the poison takes effect. This is so the two of them can sing together, of course, and you’re grateful for it. But if you’ve been paying close attention, you can’t help but notice how, when Romeo entered the crypt, he carefully closed the door most of the way behind him. I was thinking, “Romeo, crack that door, bro! Friar Lawrence and the Prince and the chorus need to come busting in in a few minutes to find you guys dead!”

But Friar Lawrence does not come. No one comes. More devastating than you can imagine, Romeo begins to die and Juliet takes his dagger and sings about how beautiful it will be for the two of them to be able to die together, and the two of them — how else can I say this? — insert the blade into her solar plexus. Throughout the entire heartbreaking scene the two have been kissing and caressing each other in desparation, and as they die they are totally entwined in one another’s arms. Their last words are to God, and they sing, “Forgive us.”

I am so haunted by this. In Shakespeare’s play, the lovers do not ask for forgiveness: it is their stupid parents and the naive Friar Lawrence and the petty citizens of Verona who have taken sides in the long Capulet-Montague feud who are chastened and stand in need of mercy.

As I walked out of the theatre, totally gutted, I thougt, “Jesus, Gounod’s opera manages to make one of the saddest tragedies of all time even more damn tragic.” Romeo and Juliet’s bodies might not be found for decades. By then, they might be nothing but bones. Because of Romeo’s banishment, no one would think to look for him. His mother would never hear from him and never know if he was alive in another land. Friar Lawrence, probably hoping to hear from the two but accepting that it might not be safe or possible for them to contact him, would pray his fruitless prayers to a God who had already received both the lovers’ final confession. The Prince and the townspeople wouldn’t learn anything. The enmity would continue as stupidly as before. Paris would marry someone else and Juliet’s parents would never have reason to question the custom of forcing daughters to marry a man she didn’t want to marry.

No one learns anything.

I appreciate the glorious singing. I appreciate the catharsis that I experience through all great performances.

But I wasn’t ready for a twist in Shakespeare’s story that would leave two beautiful and innocent young people dead by their own hands with no witnesses and no community of accountability to get some hard-won wisdom by their actions, holding only themselves accountable to their God.

I’m grateful to the guy sitting next to me who sat with me while I absorbed the shock. He thought I was just blown away by the singing. I was waiting for everyone actually responsible for those two dead bodies to come bursting through the crypt door and see what they had caused.

I am still not over it.

Never tell me that art isn’t essential to the human endeavor.



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