The list of sources from which Gounod derived his operas includes
such literary masters as Molière, La Fontaine, Mistral
and Goethe, as well as Shakespeare. In some cases the adaptations
needed to turn them into operas resulted in works a long way
from their sources, Faust being the most obvious example.
La Nonne Sanglante is another = derived from Matthew
Lewis’s The Monk and brought to mind by the recent
and very successful recording.
Roméo et Juliette does not suffer from such problems.
The librettists, Barbier and Carré, certainly took a
bold line with the play, concentrating on the two main characters.
They used as many lines directly derived from Shakespeare as
they could and overall this is no travesty of its source. The
librettists’ achievement can be ranked with that of Boito
in Otello and Falstaff, and Gounod made from their
work what is in many ways his best opera. The present recording
takes it sufficiently seriously to use what I take to be its
final form as revised for performance at the Paris Opéra
in 1888. In particular this involved the addition of a pleasant
if irrelevant ballet in Act 4 which holds up the action to little
dramatic or musical advantage but can easily be omitted by the
The opera follows Shakespeare in starting with a brief introduction
in which the chorus set the scene of the two warring families
in Verona. Straightaway the virtues of the recording become
apparent, of flexibility, care for the text and clear and well
balanced sound. My only concern was that at times Michel Plasson
seemed to be taking the music somewhat slowly, even ponderously,
but this was not enough to spoil my very considerable enjoyment.
I have to admit to some lessening of pleasure in Act One when
Juliette sings her notorious waltz song (Je veus vivre}.
This was a late addition to the opera, and it tends to portray
the young heroine more as a sophisticated partygoer than the
rather more innocent girl of Shakespeare’s, and I think
Gounod’s, intentions. It can be sung in a way that suggests
such innocence - I have a recording of a very young Julie Andrews
that does just that - but it is not the case here. Like so many
of her predecessors Angela Gheorghiu goes all out to make the
most of it, and perhaps this may be the right approach but for
me it reduces the impact of the drama. Gounod’s scoring
implies large voices for both of the lovers, but for the drama
to make its maximum impact they need to be able to sing with
lightness and flexibility. Few singers are able to achieve this,
although recordings of the part of Roméo by Kraus and
Björling are as close as I hope to hear to this ideal.
Both Gheorghiu and Alagna, especially the latter, have a tendency
to hardness in their upper register where lightness and purity
are ideally needed.
These comments are however typical of the critic who is never
satisfied. Both singers do have the kind of flexibility of dramatic
approach that is a key requirement, and they react to each other
in a dramatically believable way. The other roles are all well
taken, especially Simon Keenlyside with his wonderfully scored
aria as Mercutio, and Alain Fondary as an appropriately solid
Capulet. As I have said earlier, chorus and orchestra are excellent,
and Michel Plasson understands the idiom well even if at times
I would have preferred a lighter, swifter, approach.
Despite my reservations, this is a well considered and enjoyable
performance of an opera which tends to lie on the edge of the
repertoire. My dreams of ideal performers of the leading roles
are probably unrealistic and this is probably as good as it
is reasonable to expect - and in many respects much better.
I am no enthusiast for reading libretti on a computer screen
but at least the extra disc does give access to the very necessary
text and translations.