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Archive for May 21st, 2014

 

by Sam Juliano

No other romance in the culture has been depicted on stage or screen more often that of the star crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s 1591 Romeo and Juliet.  The Bard’s play, which probably vies as his most popular with his later masterpiece  Hamlet, was in turn based on the Italian verse tale The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.  At least 27 operas have been based on Romeo and Juliet.  The earliest, Romeo und Julie in 1776, a singspiel by Georg Benda, omits much of the action and most of its characters, and concludes on a happy note.  The most celebrated is Gounod’s 1867 Romeo et Juliette, a French work with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre that was an unqualified critical hit when it first opened, and is still frequently revived today, even at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and other world famous houses.  Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto work I Capuleti e i Montecchi is also revived on occasion, but has been unfavorably assessed by some because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare.  The charge isn’t altogether fair, as Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani worked mostly from Italian sources.  Hector Berlioz’ towering “symphonie dramatique” Romeo et Juliette, a choral and orchestral work in three parts for mixed voices, and Tchaikovsky’s ravishing Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, featuring one of classical music’s most beautiful melodies (the “love theme”) are other notable compositions that adapt Shakespeare.

The eternal fascination with these characters has spilled over into musical theatre, jazz and ballet, with the most famous by far West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Made into the famed 1961 film version that won ten Academy Awards, it is one of the most popular works of the twentieth-century in any form.  The stage work and subsequent film of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the films Sayonara and Elvira Madigan are thematically connected as well.  One of the most popular and performed ballets is Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935.  It is speculated by many that Romeo and Juliet is the most filmed play of all time (Franco Zeffirelli’s sublime 1968 version for varying reasons is the most famous) and even the word “Romeo” is synonymous with male lover in the culture. (more…)

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