Roméo et Juliette originally premiered in Paris on April 27, 1867. A few months later, on July 11, 1867, the opera opened at Covent Garden in London. I have been unable to find any reviews or press on the Paris premiere, but I did find an article from the London Times (dated August 10, 1867) about the London premiere.
The author both praised and criticized many aspects of the opera. There is so much covered in this short article, that it was hard to really decide what is important to discuss! There are a few items that are specific to Juliette that I would like to touch on first:
In Act I, the author states that Juliette’s music doesn’t quite fit her character. The “Ecoutez..” section was “hardly in keeping with so pensive a heroine.” About “Je veux vivre” they said it was not “at all in the spirit of Juliet.”
This is interesting to me, because I have had similar thoughts about Juliette’s first musical moments and how they are vastly different from the rest of the opera. I don’t 100% agree with the author, because I think the music does reflect Juliette before she has met Roméo and before the despair of the forbidden love has set in. I think it’s important that Gounod included these light-hearted, coloratura style, and very energetic, youthful moments because it provides a contrast to the later despair-laden Juliette. It gives both the singer and the audience a point of reference for who she was, and how she develops towards her disastrous fate.
The author does discuss the “remarkable point” in the finale of Act I when Juliette realizes who she has fallen for. (One of my favorite moments!) Here there is a “sombre monotony” of the repeating orchestral passage and Juliette expresses her distress in “broken phrases” that is hardly a melody.
Jumping to Act IV, one largely interesting fact is that the famous Potion aria was omitted in the Paris premiere. I find this very surprising considering the soprano Caroline Carvalho and her impressive singing and acting abilities. (I would like to look more into this, and why it was omitted.)
As Juliette is approaching the wedding altar to marry Paris, the poignant moment from the Act I finale returns. The author says: “here it comes again with real dramatic truth.” This phrase really stuck with me and has inspired me to consider how these moments are different, even though the music and text are essentially identical. In Act I she is only sensing that there is a huge disastrous issue, but in Act IV she is actually living and embodying that tragedy. Does this make the Act IV iteration more expressive and emotional? Or would she be more resigned and withdrawn in the delivery?
Also in Act IV is Friar Laurence’s Potion aria where he explains to Juliette what the potion will do. The theme that underlies most of this number is an orchestral symphony that reoccurs later in the orchestral number “Juliette’s slumber” (oftentimes this is cut), but I appreciate how this author noticed the unity that Gounod creates through the use of orchestral motives. The orchestral motif carries the Friar’s aria filled with repeated pitches and stepwise melodies, and is somewhat enchanting or haunting which I think reflects the way that Juliette is captivated by the power of the potion. The music changes to a more happy disposition when the Friar explains that she will awake after just a day and be reunited with Roméo.
The author discusses how the soprano (Adelina Patti) made this scene something that “should draw all of London.” Juliette is only listening to Friar Laurence at this point, but her facial expressions and acting were very expressive. The author says of her portrayal:
The soprano was able to show the sudden shift from absolutely terrified and distraught to full of hope for a future with her love.
This discussion is probably the most important takeaway from this review for me. Because Juliette doesn’t have any singing (except the beginning/end) of his aria, I haven’t really considered what exactly he is saying and what Juliette’s reactions and emotions would be. This has inspired me to really analyze and explore the Friar’s aria and make specific decisions about how Juliette is feeling and how to express those feelings dramatically.
Top focus: Learn about the London premiere, specifics of performance, public reception
Challenges: Focusing on what applies to the characterization of Juliette specifically
Further topics to explore: Friar Laurence’s aria – decide how it affects Juliette and how she shows it, Research soprano Adelina Patti, Why was the Potion aria omitted from the Paris premiere?
Characterization of Juliette: Act I Juliette is quite contrasting from the rest of the opera; I think Gounod does this to show the stark contrast and how she changes – how can I amplify this intent through my portrayal? Do I need to, or does the music symbolize this enough on it’s own? Maybe even my physical traits/mannerisms should change with the music/character.
Act IV/Friar Laurence’s aria – I must make sure that I know exactly what he’s saying, and that Juliette is fully engaged in this moment even though she isn’t singing. How can I show the gradual change from terrified and hopeless to hopeful?