Standing Out in a Crowd: Gounod's 'Romeo and Juliet'

Like the play, the opera takes place in 14th-century Verona. It begins with a Prologue, as the chorus foreshadows the action to come. They sing about the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and the love between Romeo and Juliet.

As ACT ONE opens, Juliet's father, a Capulet, is hosting a costume party. Two men comment enthusiastically about Juliet's beauty. The men are her cousin Tybalt, and Paris, who hopes to marry her. Juliet herself is uninterested in marriage, and says as much in the lively aria known as her "Waltz Song."

With everyone in costume, Romeo and his friends are easily able to crash the party. He's entranced when he sees Juliet, even though she's the daughter of his sworn enemey. He shyly approaches her, and asks her for a dance. The two hit if off immediately. Juliet tells him her name, and Romeo removes his mask. Bad move. Tybalt is watching, and recognizes him. Tybalt wants to have it out then and there, but Juliet's father pulls him back, and orders the festivities to continue.

In ACT TWO Romeo has ditched his friends, and serenades Juliet from under her bedroom window, hoping to draw her outside so he can catch another glimpse. It's Gounod's version of Shakespeare's famous balcony scene, and features one of the composer's most beautiful duets, "Ah! Ne fuis pas encore!" (Ah, do not flee again). Juliet's nurse interrupts, and Juliet goes back to her room, leaving Romeo in the garden below, as the curtain falls.

ACT THREE introduces another key character, Friar Lawrence. Romeo and Juliet tell the Friar that they want to be married -- in secret, of course. Otherwise, their families would forbid it. Friar Lawrence agrees, hoping their union will end the feud, and performs the ceremony.

Outside the Capulet house, the boys are getting rowdy. Romeo's page Stefano sings an insulting song, and one of the Capulet gang starts a brawl. Romeo's friend Mercutio fights with Juliet's cousin Tybalt and is wounded. His friends carry him away, but Mercutio dies. When Romeo hears this news, he runs in to avenge the killing, and things go from bad to worse. Romeo kills Tybalt. Finally, to prevent further bloodshed, the Duke of Verona puts a stop to the confrontation, and banishes Romeo from the city.

As ACT FOUR opens, Romeo says goodbye to Juliet in her room and leaves. Juliet's father then shows up with Friar Lawrence. Count Capulet orders his daughter to marry Paris immediately -- not knowing that she's already married to Romeo. Friar Lawrence quietly slips her a potion. He says it will simulate death, so she won't have to go through with the marriage to Paris.

In ACT FIVE, the friar's potion delivers as promised, and the final act takes place at Juliet's tomb. Romeo comes to bid her a last farewell -- bringing a deadly poison that will unite him with his wife. He drinks it. Juliet awakens, and --unlike in Shakespeare's play -- Romeo is still barely alive. After a final duet, Juliet takes Romeo's dagger, and stabs herself. They pray for forgiveness, and die in each other's arms.