Sweet Melody: Gounod’s “Faust”, “Roméo and Juliet” and the Théâtre Lyrique

Note from William: In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The first of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, will be the program notes for their March 2010 performances of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”. 

Operagoers who have only seen the picture of Charles Gounod in his old age behind a massive white beard, are quite prepared to accept the traditional characterization of him as an old-fashioned melodist who produced an operatic warhorse that dumbed down Goethe’s Faust.

[Below: the elderly Charles Gounod at his piano around the year 1885; resized image, from a historic photograph.]


His reputation has been besmirched by critics with axes to grind, who were advocates of different philosophies of music or different tonal systems, or who, in some cases had nationalistic motives. Now that 150 years have passed, a fresh look at Gounod’s operatic style is warranted.

Parisian born Charles Gounod’s mother, a music teacher, widowed when Charles was a young boy, provided him with sufficient musical training to assure his acceptance to France’s Royal Conservatoire of Music at age 18. Three years later he was awarded the “Grand Prix de Rome” for music, with its accompanying government stipend and three years of study in Rome and Germany.

[Below: Charles Gounod as a youth; resized image of an historic photograph.]


Gounod was part of an artistic generation that grew up in reaction to the terrors unleashed by the French Revolution. In Rome, Gounod was attracted by both the city’s Catholic and Classical Roman traditions, imbued himself in sacred music, and read the works of two literary figures – Goethe and Shakespeare – who would later provide the stories for his two most successful operas – Faust and Roméo and Juliet.

Back in Paris, in his mid-20s, and attracted to the missionary priesthood, Gounod was employed as a choirmaster in the social activist religious Chapel of the Missions Etranges, the home church of French missionaries working in Vietnam, Korea and the Middle East.  Many of its priests were martyred. Insightfully, Gounod’s mother, who considered music a vocation better suited to him than the priesthood, especially one associated with dangerous missions in foreign lands, encouraged Charles to pursue a career in Paris writing opera.

Gounod was 30 when he began his long association with his favorite collaborator, 27 year-old librettist Jules Barbier, who was assisted by another writer, Michel Carré.

[Below: Dramatist/librettist Jules Barbier, here in his 60s; edited image of a Cliche Nadar photograph.]


At that time, one of the raging debates among composers of opera, inflamed by the ideas of Richard Wagner, was whether opera should tell a story or simply provide a vehicle for opera singers to display their vocal skills.

Obviously, if you set out to tell a story (particularly in an age in which “supertitles” did not exist), it affects how you write the opera. To tell a story, it becomes critical that words being sung are understood. But if one studies Gounod and the opera composers he influenced, one is struck by the importance to an opera’s melodic content of how the words are organized.

Barbier and Gounod developed a musical style that was both intentionally melodic and which permitted all the words to be understood. What they created was a way of singing, rather than speaking, words that young persons of poetic sensibilities would say to their lovers in passionate moments.

At the time the opera Faust was being written, upper class Catholic Parisians spoke of three persons present in a romantic relationship – a man, a woman and the devil (the latter, of course, encouraging the woman to take leave of – or, more precisely, to surrender to – her senses.) Referring to a metaphorical devil as part of a love affair, of course, seems quaint in this post-Freudian age. What Gounod and Barbier might have characterized as diabolical in their conversations in polite Parisian society, we in the 21st century would call erotic.

Gounod and Barbier produced an operatic scene, the garden scene in “Faust” in which man, woman and devil were engaged in the passionate pursuit of Marguerite’s downfall. This was dangerous subject matter in that era of European reaction to Revolutionary thought. Up until that point, when one spoke of love, it tended to be an expression of an abstract, noble sentiment, rather than lust.

Of course, one could write an unconventional opera, but, unless it is performed, it will have no chance to establish a wide following. It was the great luck of Gounod and Barbier that there existed in Paris at this time a husband and wife team who had the power to bring the unconventional to the attention of the artistic and social communities of that center of culture.

[Below: Impresario Leon Carvalho; resized image of a historic photograph.]


Leon Carvalho, eight years Gounod’s junior, and his wife, Marie Caroline Miolan Carvalho, a leading opera star of her day, were disaffected by the conservatism of the major Parisian opera houses. Carvalho took over the management of an independent opera house, the Théâtre Lyrique, and installed his wife as its prima donna.

Carvalho proved an astute operatic impresario. He would ignore the conventions of the staid opera companies that had dominated Paris. Among the young anti-establishment composers who were able to see their works mounted there were three Grand Prix de Rome winners for music: Hector Berlioz and Georges Bizet, the latter in his early 20s, and Gounod, who enjoyed the greatest success that any of the three had during their lifetimes. Even today, among French operas, only Bizet’s Carmen has a worldwide popularity that exceeds Gounod’s Faust. And no French opera composer from the period can be said to be more famous than Berlioz, Gounod or Bizet.

The Carvalhos had the instinct to invest in the work of a new generation of composers, each quite ready to take on the operatic establishment. However, one of Carvalho’s principal motivations certainly was the maximization of box office receipts, and, in trying to mount productions he felt would sell tickets, he alienated such formidable composers as Berlioz and Verdi.

[Below: the Théâtre Lyrique in 1871, before it fell victim to the Paris Commune; resized image of a historic photograph.]

Even so, the number of projects that Carvalho produced at the Lyrique are truly significant, particularly when viewed from the 21st century.  Carvalho’s wife created the roles of Marguerite and Juliet.  The operas that premiered there include not only Faust and Roméo and Juliet but also Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.  Nor is Lyrique’s significance for us limited only to Gounod’s megahits and Bizet’s early success.

Verdi’s extensive 1865 revision of his early opera Macbeth was produced at the Lyrique after major Italian opera houses passed on it. Although it proved not to be a box office hit at that time, it is basically the final form in which we hear that opera today.

The Berlioz edition that combined the quite different Italian and French versions of Gluck’s Orpheus was premiered there. The Lyrique also produced Berlioz’ great masterwork Les Troyens, although cut in half with only the latter part performed in a compromised production that enraged Berlioz. Still, the only performances of any significant part of the work in Berlioz’ lifetime were those at the Lyrique.

Carvalho’s involvement in sponsoring French opera was not limited to his days at the Lyrique. He later took over the Opera Comique and promoted many of the major French works of the next two decades, including Carmen.

In fact, if every French opera which the Carvalhos sponsored and produced was eliminated from today’s repertory, most of the French operas from the latter half of the 19th century with which we are familiar, would be gone. And, even more strikingly, virtually nothing would be left of Gounod’s operatic works. Madame Carvalho, for example, not only was his Marguerite and Juliet, but introduced the title role in Mirielle and Baucis in Philemon and Baucis.

By 1860 he Lyrique  had moved into the Place du Châtelet, on the right bank of the Seine across the Pont au Change from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (Burned down during the Paris Commune in 1870, the Théâtre Lyrique was reopened as a smaller theatre while its sister building across from it eventually became today’s home of the Opera du Châtelet.)

Any form of licentiousness for decades had been routinely banned from theatrical or operatic presentation. Yet, here was the Barbier and Gounod writing an opera for the Parisian stage, containing unabashed eroticism. And what they wrote affected the sound of opera for the next half century.

The Garden Scene of Faust with its intoxicating “O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux” was unlike anything that had previously been on the operatic stage.

Spoken French, when compared to other European languages, maintains a relatively even pitch, with a nasal quality. Barbier’s words for the Garden scene, set by Gounod, meanders over just a few notes to a stunningly sensual effect.

Composer and librettist were shunned by the major opera houses, but attracted the attention of a prima donna, who found the role of Marguerite to be one that fit her vocal and acting talents – Madame Caroline Miolan Carvalho.

[Below: Madame Caroline Miolan Carvalho, who created the role of Marguerite in “Faust”; resized image of a historic photograph.]

Thus, in a moment of convergence, there existed the Théâtre Lyrique with a management determined to attract the attention of Paris, and a popular diva capable of selling the new music, and willing to portray an erotic situation onstage.

Once committed to presenting Gounod’s and Barbier’s Faust, the Carvalhos pushed forward with this revolutionary work that flaunted the conventions of the city’s operatic establishment.

But it was not the French audiences that first fully appreciated the Gounod-Barbier concept of mixing the erotic with the operatic. Within a few weeks, Gounod’s Faust was mounted in Darmstadt, Germany and then played in other German cities. There, Gounod’s melodies written to enable sung French to be understood, proved just as powerful when sung with German words. However, because of its tenuous relationship to Goethe, some smaller German opera houses call it Marguerite to this day.

Soon Faust, like Verdi’s Il Trovatore less than ten years before, became one of the greatest operatic successes of all time. Everyone who had invested in Gounod’s opera, notably the French publishing house of Choudens that mortgaged everything to get the publishing rights to the work, made a fortune.

With a successful French operatic adaptation of the “love interest” in Goethe’s masterpiece, Gounod and Barbier were persuaded to create an opera out of the most famous love story of all, the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet.

Even though there had been several serious attempts at converting the story to an operatic form, there were many reasons to believe that the team of Gounod and Barbier would create a work that would easily displace any predecessor opera on the subject. All previous operas of the Romeo-Juliet story were considered hopelessly old-fashioned. For one thing, the part of Romeo in the three major Italian operas that once held the stage was written for a female voice. (The Romeo in Bellini’s 1830 opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi continues to be a role in the repertories of some present day mezzo-sopranos, but that opera’s libretto derives from an Italian, rather than Shakespearian source.)

Gounod, who himself possessed a remarkably attractive tenor voice, created a masculine operatic persona for the iconic lover boy. And, instead of an opera in which amorous passion was confined a single scene (such as the one in Marguerite’s garden in Faust), Gounod and Barbier built Roméo and Juliet around five separate encounters between the star-crossed lovers  (including a wedding scene that does not appear in the Shakespeare play).

Those encounters provide the opportunity for the greatest collection of love duets in a single opera in any French work. Sweet melodies abound in their meeting at Capulet’s ball, and in the balcony scene, the wedding scene, the bedroom scene and the death scene, which collectively contain some of the most lyrical music ever written for the operatic stage.

Even with the inevitable plot modifications that one would expect from a Shakespeare play adaptation to the 19th century French operatic stage, the opera follows the play rather closely. (Of course, no composer would let Romeo die without a final love duet, but Romeo and Juliet’s seems less out of place here than, say, the final duet between Hamlet and Ophelie in Thomas’ Hamlet.)

Three years after Roméo’s great success, the Second Republic fell, the Paris Commune burned the Théâtre Lyrique, and Gounod left Paris for a half-decade in London. During his latter years, his religious interests were manifested in some of the greatest church music ever written, including a setting of “Ave Maria” beloved by tenors and sopranos in particular, but after Romeo he did not return to operatic writing.

Yet, even as a successful composer of church music, his affection for the sensual operas he produced in his 30s and 40s, never diminished. He was particularly pleased with Roméo and Juliet.  It is an opera that fits the voices of many present day leggiero tenors and coloratura sopranos.      ]

The melodic style developed by Gounod can be found in the operas of two generations of French composers from the 1860s through the turn of the century, and can heard in Italian opera as well. Such love duets as that of Otello and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, of Silvio and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, or of Butterfly and Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly all reflect the influence of Gounod.

From the perspective of the 21st century, we are better off that Gounod’s mother encouraged him to take the musical, rather than the missionary, path.