In the literary framework of romances, love that is born in this world is only possible in another existence.
It seems to be a constant for the young lovers of different western literatures that the male faces a premature death, and that, consequently, the female, as a fatal destiny, perishes too in order to join him in the afterlife.The proverbial couples on this theme are: “Pyramus and Thisbe”, in the ancient world; “Tristan and Isolde”, in the Middle Ages; “Romeo and Juliet”, during the first glimpses of the Renaissance; most of which reached the world of opera from the 18th century onwards. In the mid-twentieth century we find its equivalence in the couple formed by Tony and Maria, in the musical comedy “West Side Story”, which reached the cinema immediately.
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was brought to opera by John Frederik Lampe in “Pyramus and Thisbe” (1745), by Johann Adolf Hasse and Marco Coltellini in “Pyramus and Thisbe” (1768), and by Benjamin Britten in “Midsummer’s Night Dream” (1960).
Romeo and Juliet came to opera with “Giulietta e Romeo” (1825), with music by Nicola Vaccai and script by Felice Romani. Later, Vincenzo Bellini took the same script and composed “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” (1830). The basis of the libretto was the homonymous novel by Luigi Da Porto (Vicenza, 1485-1529), which preceded the tragic version by the young Shakespeare in 1587, who also borrowed from other sources, such as the story “The Lovers of Verona” by Matteo Bandello (Piedmont, c. 1480-Agen, 1560), inspired in turn by the wide tradition of ancient romances.
Later, a new script by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré gave birth to one of the operas with the highest presence on the subject: “Roméo et Juliette”, by composer Charles Gounod, premiered in 1867 at the Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet. One of the most celebrated soprano arias, “Je veux vivre,” emerges from the first act, when Juliette, barely a teenager, is about to be presented to Prince Paris. She confesses she is not interested in marrying him, and sings of her irrepressible desire to live out her youth, which will not last forever, if ever “one day.”
Earlier, in 1839, Hector Berlioz had composed an elaborate symphony for 100 performers and 101 voices, which recalls the story of the lovers of Verona. The score uses a large symphony orchestra, a mixed chorus, and three solo voices – those of Romeo, Juliet and Friar Laurence – with an evident influence of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, premiered 15 years earlier. This grandiloquent symphony must have impressed Richard Wagner, who was present at the premiere, and who years later composed the opera “Tristan and Isolde” (1859) in honor of another of the great couples of literature, which also culminates with the death of the two lovers, where Tristan, the male, dies before her.
In the symphonic and dancing world, the contributions of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev are emblematic. The first one with his overture-fantasy “Romeo and Juliet” (1869), which Tchaikovsky composed at the age of 39 after a love deception. In the 20th century, Prokofiev composed his suites of dances on the theme, material from which is derived the ballet “Romeo and Juliet”, premiered at the Kirov theater in Leningrad in 1940, with a script by the playwright Adrian Piotrovsky, and choreography by Leonid Lavrosvki.
In 1968, film director Franco Zefirelli, also experienced in directing opera and theater, brought Romeo and Juliet to the screen. Later versions are those of director Baz Lurhrman (Australia, 1962), filmed in Mexico City, as well as on the beaches of Boca del Río, Veracruz, and Miami. The 1996 film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. This film takes place under a postmodern look, where the Capulets’ residence is none other than Chapultepec Castle, and Friar Lorenzo’s temple is the the Church “Purísimo Corazón de María”, in Colonia Del Valle in the Mexican capital. It is a hybrid exoticism that swings between the smuggling of the West, film noir, religious urbanism, and the traces of the gigantic social gaps that characterize megacities such as Mexico City, or Rio de Janeiro, where city, port and beach come together. This cinematographic effort was followed, in 2013, by the version of Carlo Carlei (Italy, 1960), who, third in the series, provided, as in a syllogism, the conclusion to two premises. Even with various contemporary concessions, he recovered the historical atmosphere of old Verona, in the style of Zeffirelli, his fellow countryman.
It would be an endless enterprise to trace a genealogy of the greatest love tragedies present in the Fine Arts. Through the different languages of art, the limits of human nature, if they can be defined at all, are put to the test. The various fantastic tales – the actions of gods or demi-gods, of heroic, fictitious or historical characters, or of common human beings – give origin to an endless number of works that sing of love in forms both ancient and current.