Romeo and Juliet

Washington National Opera
November 4 - 18
The Kennedy Center

Feuding families. Doomed fate. So much is stacked against young Romeo and Juliet—and yet—love finds a way. Gounod’s opera is a sweeping retelling of one of the most tragic love stories of all time. Everything you want from the saga is here, from soaring music to exquisite duets to heart-stopping duels. The scenery and costumes for this production of Romeo and Juliet are co-produced by Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera. Performed in French with projected English titles.

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About the Show

Beginning November 4, 2023



The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

2700 F St NW

Washington, DC 20566

About the Play

Eight years after being “possessed” by a performance of Rossini’s Othello, Charles Gounod (1818- 1893) was awarded the Prix de Rome. Immersing himself in the storied city, the young composer was deeply moved by both the liturgical music and the sacred paintings he found in its churches. When Gounod returned to Paris, he took a post as a church musician, and even enrolled in seminary for a time. Although he eventually returned to his first vocation—music—his faith remained at the center of his thought and work.

“Man’s sublime function is literally and positively that of a new earthly Creator. His duty is to make all things what they ought to become. Not merely in the matter of the cultivation of the soil of our earth, but also as regards intellectual and moral consummation nor true conclusion is possible save through Man, to whom creation was confided that he might till it—’ut operatur terram,’ as the old text of the Book of Genesis runs. An artist, then, is not simply a sort of mechanical apparatus which receives or reflects the image of exterior and visible objects; he is a sensitive and living instrument, which wakes to consciousness and vibrates at the touch of Nature. And this vibration it is which at once indicates the artistic vocation, and is the primary cause of any work of art.” (Charles Gounod, Nature and Art)

Gounod continued to write religious music for the rest of his life; he also made good on his teenage ambition to compose opera. The singer/composer Pauline Viardot, whom Gounod had met in Rome, suggested he compose a work for the Paris Opéra with a leading role for her: Sapho premiered in 1851 and was followed by commissions for La nonne sanglante (“The Bloody Nun”) and Ivan le terrible. The latter was never performed, and Gounod moved on to a new theater—and new collaborators. Le médicin malgré lui, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique, a house established to bring opera to the masses. Barbier and Carré went on to write eight libretti for Gounod, including the wildly popular Faust (1859)—which became one of the most-performed French operas of all time—and Roméo et Juliette (1867).

While still a student, Gounod had been deeply impressed by Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1839); in his Memoirs he wrote of being “intoxicated by the weird, passionate, tumultuous strains, which seemed to open new and brilliant worlds to me.” Unlike Berlioz, who focused his symphonie dramatique on the two warring families, Gounod and his collaborators chose to zoom in on the protagonists, making four love duets the pillars of their opera.

Gounod’s sensitive and expressive text setting perfectly complements Shakespeare’s poetry, and much of the libretto was taken directly from the play. To begin, Shakespeare’s prologue offered an irresistible opportunity for Gounod, a master of choral writing. Some adjustments were required, however; in addition to trimming the text by about 75 percent, Gounod and his librettists found it necessary to devise some new material. Juliette’s showy Act One aria has no Shakespearean equivalent, nor does the role of Stéphano, a secondary role for a female singer, but both were expected by opera audiences at the time. Most importantly, the opera’s Roméo lives until Juliette awakes, allowing the lovers a final duet and prayer for forgiveness—a move Gounod must have found not only musically but also morally satisfying.

In Shakespeare, Gounod had found another “sensitive and living instrument,” and Shakespeare’s vivid depiction of the terrible power of love—and its opposite—produced a vibration in the composer that, joined with his elegant craftsmanship, was to be the cause of one of the most enduring Shakespearean operas in the repertory. As Gounod later reflected in his Memoirs: “The first act ends brilliantly; the second is tender and dream-like, the third animated and grand…the fourth is dramatic, the fifth tragic. It’s a fine progression.”

By Kelly Rourke

Featured Artists

JULIET Rosa Feola

ROMEO Adam Smith

MERCUTIO Justin Austin


CONDUCTOR Evan Rogister

DIRECTOR Simon Godwin

A Letter From
The Folger Director