Go inside this production of Romeo and Juliet with engaging articles, program notes, a complete plot synopsis artist bios, and more.
Of all subjects that opera composers and librettists have taken on over the centuries, love is the most prevalent and the most cherished by audiences everywhere. Love in all its aspects presents operatic creators with every possibility for drama as well as for lyrical expression, encompassing every shade of emotion.
For many, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written well over 400 years ago, remains the most romantic story ever written. Of all love stories in literary history, it’s surely this one that has awakened more people to the joys – and, of course, the sorrows – of young love. Take the magic of the play, add to it Charles Gounod’s breathtaking music, and you have a rapturously beautiful event in the opera house. I truly believe that if you haven’t seen Gounod’s opera, you haven’t yet experienced the full impact of this unforgettable tale. Like Vincenzo Bellini before him with I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Leonard Bernstein after him with West Side Story, and countless other composers, Gounod was powerless to resist the attraction of the ultimate star-crossed lovers. The musical highlights of his opera are unforgettable, including no fewer than four glorious duets for the youthful hero and heroine.
We’re presenting Romeo and Juliet in an exceptionally exciting production. It’s directed by Bartlett Sher, long celebrated for his achievements in theater and musicals, who has in recent years achieved great distinction in opera. I saw his production a few years ago at the Salzburg Festival and fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been triumphantly received at La Scala. Michael Yeargan’s imposing sets and Catherine Zuber’s lavish costumes contribute to the production’s achievement in capturing the essence of Shakespeare’s original story.
If ever an opera required a special chemistry between its two leading artists, it’s this one. That chemistry will be evident onstage at Lyric in our marvelous cast. Returning to the company is a great favorite of our audiences, Ryan Opera Center alumna Susanna Phillips. Her tenure in the program actually included a highly successful last-minute substitution as Juliet on the Lyric stage. Since then she has gone on to star at the Metropolitan Opera and many other major companies. Sharing the role of Romeo are two of today’s most eminent tenors, Joseph Calleja and Eric Cutler. Joseph is returning to us for his first French role at Lyric, after great successes as tenor heroes of Verdi and Puccini. Eric has already exhibited his prowess in French opera at Lyric with his marvelous portrayal of Nadir in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.
I’m delighted that this quintessentially French opera will be led by one of today’s most remarkable French conductors, Emmanuel Villaume, music director of The Dallas Opera, who has led many Lyric performances. The innate stylistic flair of his music-making, combined with his sense of elegance and romance, is always a joy and will add immeasurably to this opera in its eagerly awaited return to our stage.
PLACE: Verona, Italy
PROLOGUE The people of Verona describe the conflict between the Capulet and Montague families (Chorus: Vérone vit jadis deux familles rivales), and the star-crossed lovers whose deaths ended the feud.
Lords and ladies arrive at Lord Capulet’s home for a masked ball (Chorus: L’heure s’envole). Tybalt, the host’s nephew, teases Count Paris about Juliet, the latter’s betrothed. Capulet introduces his daughter to his guests. Juliet responds to their admiration and expresses her excitement about the ball. Capulet invites everyone to enjoy themselves. When Romeo and Mercutio appear with their friends, Romeo admits his reluctance to attend the ball, having been preoccupied by a troubling dream. Mercutio blithely remarks that his friend has been visited by Queen Mab, who presides over all dreams (Ballad: Mab, la reine des mensonges).
Already in love with Rosaline, Romeo is assured by Mercutio that at the ball his attention will be drawn to a hundred other girls who will make him forget all about her. Suddenly he sees Juliet from afar, and is transfixed by her beauty. Mercutio drags him away as Juliet appears, talking with her nurse, Gertrude. The nurse reminds her charge that she was herself already married at Juliet’s age, but Juliet is hardly thinking about marriage – she prefers to prolong her youthful dream (Ariette: Je veux vivre). Gregorio, a Capulet retainer, calls the nurse away, leaving Romeo free to woo Juliet (Madrigal: Ange adorable). He is horrified when she identifies herself as Lord Capulet’s daughter. A suspicious Tybalt returns to summon his cousin Juliet, and Romeo realizes she is Lord Capulet’s daughter. Recognizing his voice as that of Romeo, a member of the enemy Montague family, Tybalt swears revenge. Eager to keep his guests’ spirits lighthearted, Capulet invites them once again to drink and dance.
Although it is nearly dawn, Romeo lingers outside Lord Capulet’s home. He compares Juliet with the rising sun (Cavatina: Ah! lèvetoi, soleil!). When she appears on her balcony, he surprises her and ardently declares his love. Romeo hides when Gregorio and some Capulet servants appear, searching for Romeo’s page, Stephano, whom they believe has been seen in the area. They tease Gertrude before leaving. The nurse takes Juliet inside, but she soon reappears to bid goodnight to Romeo. She informs him that, if he does indeed wish to marry her, he should send word the next day as to where and when they should meet. Romeo begs her not to leave him yet (Duet: Ah! ne fuis pas encore!). After a final goodnight, Juliet goes inside and Romeo asks the breeze to send her his kiss.
Scene 1. Early the next morning, Friar Laurence is astonished to be greeted by Romeo. Well aware of the Capulet/Montague enmity, the friar expresses grave apprehension when Romeo confesses that he loves a Capulet. Accompanied by her nurse, Juliet appears and confirms that Romeo must be her bridegroom. The friar agrees to perform the marriage ceremony, and the three are joined by Gertrude in proclaiming their joy (Quartet: O pur bonheur).
Scene 2. Having failed to find his master during the past day, Stephano amuses himself by singing a mocking serenade outside Lord Capulet’s home (Chanson: Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle). The song draws Gregorio and members of the Capulet household into the street. They tease the young Stephano, who then provokes Gregorio into a sword fight. Mercutio steps in to defend Stephano, just as Tybalt arrives on the scene, and the two launch into raucous swordplay. When Romeo appears, Tybalt – remembering his enemy’s wooing of his cousin Juliet – challenges him, but Romeo refuses to fight. He begs Mercutio to restrain himself, but the fury of both Tybalt and Mercutio boils over. Urged on by their respective allies, they battle each other relentlessly until Tybalt deals Mercutio a fatal wound. Mercutio curses the houses of both Capulet and Montague before he dies. Now desperate for revenge, Romeo takes sword in hand and kills Tybalt. The Duke of Verona arrives and castigates both families for the violence. Rather than the expected sentence of death, the Duke orders Romeo into exile. Overcome by misery (Finale: Ah! jour de deuil), Romeo vows to see Juliet once more.
At dawn Romeo rushes to Juliet, who comforts and supports him following the death of Tybalt. They quickly become overwhelmed by their love (Duet: Nuit d’hyménée), only to be interrupted by daylight and a lark’s singing. After a prolonged and passionate farewell, Romeo tears himself from Juliet’s arms and rushes away.
Accompanied by Friar Laurence, Lord Capulet enters Juliet’s room, urging his daughter to ready herself for her wedding to Count Paris. Remaining behind to counsel Juliet, Friar Laurence is confronted by the despairing Juliet. He conspires with her and offers her a potion that will induce a deathlike sleep, from which she will eventually be awakened by Romeo. When finally alone, Juliet calls on love to give her courage (Aria: Amour, ranime mon courage) and drinks the potion. When her father and Paris appear for the marriage ceremony, she collapses and appears to be dead.
Romeo enters Juliet’s crypt and sadly greets the sight of her seemingly dead body. After kissing her, he draws a bottle from his tunic and drinks the poison it contains. Moments later Juliet awakens, and she greets Romeo joyfully. The two look forward to leaving Verona forever (Duet Finale: Viens! fuyons au bout du monde!). Suddenly the poison takes effect, which forces Romeo to confess what he has done. Distraught that he has left no poison for her, Juliet takes his dagger and, with Romeo’s help, stabs herself. With their last breath, the lovers ask God’s forgiveness.