The Best Recordings of Romeo et Juliette
I wasn’t initially planning to write today, but since it’s Valentines Day it seemed appropriate to tackle this opera today. Truthfully, I was planning on doing this review next week, as I see it as the perfect parallel for Tosca, for me at least. They’re quite different, beyond both featuring two doomed lovers, but for me they’re most different in their strengths. Tosca is one of the premiere visual operas, Romeo et Juliette is ear candy at its finest. Romeo et Juliette is one of my favorite operas, musically speaking. Oddly enough, the opera I find it most resembles is Tristan und Isolde. Both operas are named after a pair of doomed young lovers, and save for some interjections from other characters, both operas are essentially just a long duet between those young lovers. The secondary characters are important, but rarely do they have the opportunity to dazzle. As such, my criteria for selecting the best Romeo et Juliette recordings is to find which singers nail that duet. In this process I have found one live recording, one studio recording, and one honorable mention studio recording that fit the bill. I hope you enjoy.
1947 Metropolitan Opera: Jussi Bjorling, Bidu Sayao w/ Emil Cooper conducting
This stunning live broadcast brought two of the most prominent singers of their time to a wide audience in superb voice that matched their characters perfectly. What really works for me in this recording is how both singers are able to capture the youth of their characters, whilst still delivering in the big moments. Bjorling stuns with boyish lyricism at the conclusion of Act 2, as he blissfully parts ways with Juliette. But, he also excels in the big moments, like when Romeo is exiled for slaying Tybalt. Bidu Sayao accomplishes the same feats. Her “Je Veux Vivre” is effervescent and displays all of the youthful energy one could ever want from that moment. But, she also delivers in the poison aria, a make or break moment for any Juliette. Together they sound like a truly blissful pair of young lovers. Emil Cooper displays a thorough knowledge of Gounod’s score, making for an incredible live broadcast.
Jussi Bjorling and Bidu Sayo sing the Act 2 Love Duet
1968 EMI Recording: Franco Corelli, Mirella Freni w/ Alain Lombard conducting
A French purist might shudder at the inclusion of this recording on the list, but for me it checks all the boxes I’d want for a studio Romeo et Juliette. Corelli and Freni play off of each other magnificently. When I listen to this recording I forget about the dramatic shortcomings Romeo et Juliette has in live theater. This is because the passion is palpable throughout. Freni at this stage in her career had the clarion tone for which she would always be known, and a more youthful color to go with it. As expected Corelli delivers big in the big moments, but his ability to reign his massive voice in is more stunning than purely impressive. This passionate performance is also present in Lombard’s conducting. This is the one recording of Romeo et Juliette that invokes the same levels of heart melting rapture that I feel whilst listening to the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet symphonic suites. This may not be the favorite recording with a purist, but you’d be remiss to not give it a listen.
Franco Corelli & Mirella Freni singing excerpts
Honorable Mention Studio
1998 EMI Recording: Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Simon Keenlyside, Jose Van Dam w/ Michel Plasson
To my ears this is the best recording of the more stylistically polished recordings. Alagna and Gheorghiu are at the peak of their vocal powers, in the repertoire that sounded perfectly suited for their voices. The secondary roles deliver exceptionally well in this recording, making for perhaps the strongest secondary singing on this list. Keenlyside is such a charming Mercutio that I feel the need to break my own rules and mention his contributions. Jose van Dam makes a sonorous turn as Frere Laurent, displaying both compassion and pity for the young lovers throughout. Vocally speaking this recording is one of the closest we have to the traditions of golden age singing in the modern day.
Simon Keenlyside sings the “Ballad of Queen Mab”
Romeo et Juliette has been one of my favorite operas since I first heard it. The music enfolds, and never lets go. This opera is well worth the listen on any day of the year, not just Valentines. Every recording I listed is available on iTunes, Amazon, and/or YouTube. I hope you enjoy.