Words or Music, Part 3: Romeo and Juliet and The Age of Aquarius
“Ah! Leve-toi soleil”
-- Roméo et Juliette
“Good Morning Starshine”
* * *
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I saw the Broadway production of Hair, in one of the last performances before that show’s closing. The following Wednesday evening, I went to a local movie theatre to catch the Metropolitan Opera’s encore HD presentation of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Ever since then, both events have become intertwined in my brain, one reflecting the other like a series of tiny mirrors.
I haven’t mentioned Shakespeare yet, because I know many will be offended by my placing Shakespeare and Gounod in the same paragraph, and even more by my setting both of them alongside Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. If I were going to compare Romeo and Juliet with any Broadway musical, the obvious choice would be West Side Story, whose story of rival gangs and star-crossed lovers actually uses the Shakespeare play as its scaffolding. But Hair, that forty-three year old hippie musical, also has much in common with the nineteenth-century opera (based on the sixteenth-century play). Both are about the qualities which define youth: romantic love and sexual passion, joy and confusion, bravado and fear. Both have as backdrops a violent and uncomprehending adult world. Neither is set in the present (Hair at one time was, but I wondered how many young people in the audience that day even knew what a draft card was or understood what an act of moral heroism it was to burn it), yet both chronicle a universal experience--that moment when innocence and experience first intersect, love becomes a tropical fever, and we can’t be sure if it will drive us mad or actually kill us.
Romeo. She speaks:
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.
We are all either Romeo or Juliet, before time turns us into Friar Laurence or the Nurse. And yet, who would have it otherwise, since Juliet is only thirteen and Romeo probably not much older? There are many instances in life as well as in Shakespeare to demonstrate that mature love is a deeper, richer, entirely more complex experience--you have only to look at Antony and Cleopatra or even Macbeth and Lady Macbeth--but it is the licking flames of that first great passion, still imprinted on our latter-day selves, which make Romeo and Juliet such a recognizably wrenching experience.
Viewed this way, Juliet’s rapturous declaration of romantic love becomes our own:
Juliet: But to be frank and give it thee again;
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
How best to approach the experience of Romeo and Juliet? Nothing, of course, surpasses a reading or a performance of Shakespeare’s play; but even stripped of its poetry, the story adapts remarkably well to other mediums and guises. Music, especially, seems to distill its essence. There is the Prokofiev ballet, the Tchaikovsky symphonic poem, the Bernstein music for West Side Story, the lush Nino Rota score for the 1968 Zeffirelli film, and any number of operatic incarnations, of which one of the purest and most perfect seems to me Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. The librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, stuck closely to the shape, overall tone, and even some of the dialogue of the original. A few scenes not involving the lovers were cut, speeches were shortened, and the ending was reshaped so that Juliet, awakening in the tomb, finds Romeo expiring but not quite dead yet, allowing a final, passionate duet. Those who look down their noses at opera find death duets an implausible convention, but the music has a weight and conviction of its own, and for anyone whose senses are open to grand emotion I doubt it is possible to remain unmoved. In our modern electronic age, we can instantly gratify ourselves with a sampling of that death scene. And if this provokes you to explore the opera in its entirety, I can recommend no performance more highly than this production from the Royal Opera House in London with Roberto Alagna and Leotina Vaduva.
When I think about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is not the death scene that comes most readily to mind but the almost mythically resonant Act 2, Scene 2 balcony scene:
Romeo. But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
The operatic equivalent, Ah, leve-toi soleil, sheds the glories of the Shakespearean language, but replaces it with music of such great emotion and yearning it is possible to drown in it.
Now that you have experienced the French lyric Roméo et Juliette, are you tempted to go back to its English source? In my blog posts of November 25, 2008 and March 31, 2009 I investigated the literary underpinnings of the operatic repertory without mentioning Shakespeare, whose plays have probably inspired more operatic adaptations than it would be possible to count. Was school the last time you actually read Romeo and Juliet? As a student, did you recognize the play’s passion and relish its poetry without bringing much personal perspective to bear? Would you be interested in revisiting the play? Finding a copy of Romeo and Juliet, or for that matter a collected Shakespeare, in the circulating collections of the New York Public Library is not difficult, as we abound in them. If you’re looking for a recommendation, the Arden edition is considered by many to be the contemporary modern standard. For a more scholarly approach, you might want to come to the General Research Division, where multiple Shakespeare texts exist in all their knotty textual complexity. Quartos, folios, all those eighteenth century editions and adaptations, and most modern versions with their weighty editorial apparatuses can be found, contrasted, and compared.
So far I haven’t pressed the analogy between Romeo and Juliet and Hair, knowing it would collapse if taken too far. The juxtaposition of those two performances created for me a curious personal mood in which exhilaration and wistfulness mingled, and I doubt if it could even be duplicated. But if opera’s bastard child, the Broadway musical, is what interests you, and you’ve been intrigued by my excitement over the current production, I’m afraid there’s not much that can be done short of following the touring company across country, or traveling to London to see the West End production. These wouldn’t be the worst choices, if possible; if not, this CD combining the original off-Broadway and Broadway cast recordings might provide a reasonable substitute.
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars