Great Performances at The Met: Romeo et Juliette – February 1, 1947

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The Opera News (program) for the February 1, 1947 Metropolitan Opera matinee broadcast of Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.(Photo: The Metropolitan Opera Archives)
The Opera News (program) for the February 1, 1947 Metropolitan Opera matinee broadcast of Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.(Photo: The Metropolitan Opera Archives)

Of the more than 1300 live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (since 1931) a handful have achieved the oft repeated “legendary status.” This is one of them, a matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette broadcast live from the Met in 1947, eighteen months after the end of World War II.

Shakespeare’s tale has been adapted to music by Bellini, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Zandonai (the underrated Giulietta e Romeo), but it is Gounod’s French language version that continues to hold the stage.

One hundred years ago Romeo et Juliette rode the crest of popularity it held since its premiere in 1867. Gounod was the darling of the gaslight era. He wrote tunes, he used recognizable plots, his operas weren’t too long and everybody could have a good cry and go home.

The Metropolitan Opera first performed Romeo et Juliette in 1891. The opera became the property of Emma Eames and Nellie Melba, but above all it belonged to the Polish tenor heartthrob Jean de Reszke. “The divine Jean” had no peer among the tenor ranks until he retired in 1902, but Romeo went on without him.

This 1947 broadcast was the first of four performances of this opera given that week. It then vanished from the repertoire for the next twenty years.

Casting in 1947 was no problem. If the chubby Jussi Bjoerling (1911-1960) was nobody’s idea of a Romeo lookalike, he was a stunning artist, with a sweet sense of legato-the”line” who one note follows another, like matched pearls. He had the restraint necessary in his first meeting with Juliet, and the passion for their eventual farewell.

Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao (1902-1999) was a beauty, deeply loved by the New York public and her considerable vocal charms were but one part of the picture.

This writer met Mme Sayo in the 1980s. There she was, energetically pushing ninety. I stupidly said to her “I wish I could have heard you live”. “Don’t vorry dahling! I vill come back soon a beeyoutiful young voman!” I can’t wait.

Sayao was a pupil of Jean de Reszke and this exquisite Brazilian artist learned impeccable French…from a Pole.

Joining the couple for this matinee broadcast were baritone John Brownlee (1900-1969) as Mercutio, bass Nicola Moscona (1907-1975) as Friar Lawrence and soprano Mimi Benzell (1924-1970) as Stephano.

Brownlee was a protege of Nellie Melba’s (the great Juliet of Gounod’s day.)  Benzell became a Broadway star. All sing very well, but make no mistake – the show belongs to Sayao and Bjoerling.

Listen: Romeo (Bjoerling) and Juliet (Sayao) have one night together – here’s the “morning after”. Romeo on pain of death must leave Verona, and his wife:

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/ADIEUX.mp3"]

Gounod was a fine composer, but he was no Mozart, Verdi or Wagner. He was a fine composer of the second rank. Romeo is audience friendly and stage worthy.

If you need great music, wait for the Wagner and Mozart releases to come. If you want great singing, don’t miss this Sony Classical edition of this 1947 Met broadcast.

If Sayao and Bjoerling are singing like this in heaven, well, that’s why they call it “heaven”.

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