While you might not think so, Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, based on the play by Shakespeare, is one of the rarest things in opera.
Over the centuries, Romeo and Juliet has inspired all kinds of music. There are songs, symphonic poems, Broadway musicals and film scores.
In the Broadway category the most famous example must be West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Stephen Sondheim. That show, in turn, has spawned countless "covers" of its hit tunes, in all manner of musical guises. There's even an extra-peppy version of "I Feel Pretty," performed by Little Richard!
Among the many films inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy, the one with the most famous music is probably the version by Franco Zeffirelli. The movie's score, by Nino Rota, was a hit all on its own, with its famous "Love Theme" that also became a hit song, "A Time for Us."
There's also plenty of classical music inspired by the play, including the familiar tone poem by Tchaikovsky, and a brilliant ballet by Sergei Prokofiev, and a unique dramatic score for chorus and orchestra by Berlioz.
So what makes Gounod's opera a rare bird? It's not just that it's based on Shakespeare's tragedy; there are plenty of other operas in that category. What's unusual about Gounod's version is that it's an opera based on Shakespeare that's actually a hit.
There are hundreds of Shakespeare operas, including about two dozen based on Romeo and Juliet. But, astonishingly, of those hundreds only a few are still seen regularly on today's stages. And of all the "R & J" operas, Gounod's is really the only one that has stuck in the repertory.
When Gounod turned his attention to Romeo and Juliet in 1867 he'd already had a big hit with another adaptation -- an opera based on Goethe's Faust. So for Romeo and Juliet, he collaborated with the same librettists he worked with on the earlier opera: Jules Barbier & Michel Carré.
The two writers stuck fairly close to the original play by Shakespeare, though there are some changes. Barbier and Carré cut a few scenes that didn't deal directly with the two lovers. They also tweaked the ending. In the play, when Juliet finally awakens in the tomb, Romeo is already dead. When she wakes up in the opera, Romeo still has a few flickers of life -- enough for the two to sing a final duet before Juliet stabs herself and they die together.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Gounod's Romeo and Juliet in a production from the Royal Wallonie Opera in Liège, Belgium. Soprano Annick Massis and tenor Aquiles Machado star in the title roles, in a production led by conductor Patrick Davin.
Over the years -- over the centuries, really -- any number of stereotypes have developed about what opera is all about. And frankly, we try not to encourage them here, as most of those stereotypical views of opera are either simplistic, or just plain wrong.
Yet there is one basic and widely held view of opera that does have a grain of truth to it -- maybe two or three grains -- and it's reinforced by the opera featured here, Verdi's The Sicilian Vespers. That view holds that an opera's not over until at least one of its main characters is dead. And in fact plenty of operas, including some great ones, do have death as a key ingredient.
A prime example is one that's almost certainly the first great opera ever written. Monteverdi's Orfeo. In that drama, Orfeo learns early on about the death of his bride Euridice. It's the event that gets the whole opera rolling. So in a way, that death is the dramatic event that gets the entire history of opera rolling.
In Orfeo, that tragic moment is rather subtle. In fact, the death itself doesn't even happen onstage. With time, of course, death at the opera became more and more commonplace, and certainly more sensational -- consider the bloody bridal gown in Donizetti's Lucia, or the diva's suicidal plunge from the parapet in Puccini's Tosca.
Still, of all the operas that feature fatal illness, murderous jealousy and bloody revenge, there's one that may be deadlier than them all. At the end of The Sicilian Vespers just about everyone meets their maker.
By the mid-1850's, Verdi was on a creative hot streak that few composers have ever matched. He had just finished three operas that are still among the most popular ever written: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. On the heels of those successes, Verdi got the chance to write a new opera for Paris, where he came up with Les Vêpres Siciliennes -- The Sicilian Vespers. When the French master Hector Berlioz heard Verdi's Vêpres in Paris, he said the work had "a grandeur, a solemn mastery more marked than in the composer's previous creations."
By now, the opera is probably most familiar in the later, Italian edition of the score, I Vespri Siciliani. But on World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the original, French version, in a brand new production from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It's led by the company's music director, conductor Antonio Pappano, and features soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Hélène, tenor Bryan Hymel as Henri, and bass-baritone Erwin Schrott as Procida.
Even people who say they never listen to classical music most likely encounter it nearly every day. Tunes from the concert hall and the opera house often turn up in places where you might not expect them. In 1945, Frank Sinatra recorded the hit tune "Full Moon and Empty Arms." Its soaring melody first appeared more than 40 years earlier, in Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.
In 1953, Robert Wright and George Forrest had a Broadway hit with the musical Kismet. The show was adapted from the works of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, and one of its tunes tends to overshadow the others. The melody to the hit song "Strangers in Paradise" was originally a dance number in Borodin's historical opera Prince Igor. After Forrest added the words, any number of singers took it up. Alfred Drake sang it in the original cast, and Tony Bennett helped to make it a pop standard.
Still, there may be no classical tune -- operatic or otherwise -- that turns up in more varied places than the other-worldly "hit single" from this week's featured opera, Lakmé by Leo Delibes.
In the drama's first act, with the story barely underway, the title character and one of her servants pause by a river to gather flowers. Delibes gave them a duet, to help establish the opera's exotic atmosphere, and that "Flower Duet" has become one of the most familiar numbers any composer, in any genre, has ever written.
You can hear it on television shows, as background music in elevators and shopping malls, in any number of "mood music" collections and even, unaccountably, in the sound tracks of a few horror movies, including The Hunger and Piranha 3D. It's also a natural for commercials. A while back, it became a sort of TV theme song for British Airways ads -- as the peaceful accompaniment to a jetliner floating through calm skies and wispy clouds.
The story of the Brahmin girl Lakmé was based on a novel by Frenchman Pierre Loti, who had traveled in the Orient and brought back a number of exotic stories. Librettist Edmond Gondinet gave Delibes a copy of Loti's book, to pass the time on a train ride. The composer loved it, and took about a year to compose the opera, which premiered in Paris in the spring of 1883.
Lakmé brings together many popular themes of opera in the 1880s: an exotic location -- already in vogue thanks to Bizet's The Pearl Fishers -- plus mysterious religious rituals, the beautiful flora of the Orient and the general novelty of Western colonials living in a foreign land. Composers Jules Massenet and Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote operas with similar elements, and those dramas were also popular in Paris.
This week on World of Opera, we'll hear the famous "Flower Duet" straight from the source, when host Lisa Simeone presents a complete production of Lakmé from Switzerland's Lausanne Opera. Soprano Julia Bauer and mezzo-soprano Élodie Méchain sing the duet, with tenor Christoph Berry as Gerald, in a performance led by conductor Miguel Ortega.
The history of drama is full of brilliant collaborations, whether it's at the opera, in the theater or at the movies -- and while it might seem that a great creative team would take a while to gel, some of the most celebrated partnerships have flourished right from the start.
In the mid-1980s, when director David Lynch needed music to evoke the unique atmosphere of his emerging, and already highly individual filmmaking style, he turned to composer Angelo Badalamenti.
Their first movie was Blue Velvet, a trendsetting film that was both highly-acclaimed, and much discussed. Badalamenti's music, with its uneasy balance between tension and sentiment, seemed a perfect complement to Lynch's directorial sensibilties, which tend to veer between oddly amusing, and highly disturbing. After Blue Velvet, the two artists worked together for years to come, on movies including Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story -- not to mention the landmark TV series Twin Peaks and its companion feature film.
Now, you might assume that achieving more or less instant success with a first-time collaboration would be a rare event. But it has happened on other occasions: Steven Spielberg and John Williams with Jaws, as well as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein with Oklahoma come to mind. And there's another example that dates back more than 200 years -- one that also combined comedy and sentiment with a distinct edge of foreboding, to create dramatic worlds that leave audiences wondering just how they should feel about what they've just experienced.
We have to go back to the 1700s for the first efforts of what might just be the greatest theatrical team ever, at least when it comes to pairing drama with music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Together, they wrote three operas that have been mainstays in the world's theaters ever since -- operas in which slapstick comedy mixes brilliantly with discord, treachery, and heartbreak. The last of the trio was Così fan tutte. Before that came Don Giovanni. And the two began their historic collaboration with the opera featured here, The Marriage of Figaro.
We don't know much about how Mozart and da Ponte divided their efforts on Figaro. But it was Mozart who had to pitch the new work to its main patron, the emperor of Austria -- and it was a tough sell. The opera, and the play by Pierre Beaumarchais that it's based on, explore territory that many found worrisome -- the often contentious relationships between classes.
The play had been banned by authorities in France and Mozart's opera made the Austrian monarchy nervous. Both works clearly illuminate the limitations of rank and privilege, demonstrating that common sense can often trump wealth and power, and that genuine humility easily upstages unchecked arrogance.
Da Ponte's dialogue is subtle and meticulously layered -- but at the same time witty and involving. Mozart's music is well-crafted and immensely sophisticated -- but also tuneful and infectious.
Their opera, with all its artistic contradictions and complexities, reveals some simple, real-life truths: that harsh economic realities are no impediment to the instinctive richness of human intellect, and that stultifying social conventions will never dampen the spontaneity of human emotion. It also proves that first-time collaborators can sometimes come up with the stuff that dreams are made of.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Marriage of Figaro from Switzerland's Grand Theatre of Geneva. The stars are sopranos Malin Byström and Nataliya Kovalova as the Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna, and baritones David Bizic and Aris Argiris as Figaro and the Count. Conductor Stefan Soltesz leads a production that also features the Suisse Romande Orchestra.