Neil Bartlett: For both of them, love is a trap door. It opens beneath their feet. They don't fly upwards, they plunge downwards into an unknown country.
Rhiannon Giddens: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Emma Smith: This speech flips the language of the play from the world of the living to the world of the dead. And that, of course, is a major tonal shift towards tragedy.
Rhiannon Giddens: Every episode, we dig deep into a single aria to see what treasure there is hiding inside. Today, it's “Amour, ranime mon courage,” the Poison Aria, from Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod.
Diana Damrau: Gounod's music is so deep, and an immense specter of feelings are given to us. They hit us right direct in the soul. The music takes you.
Rhiannon Giddens: Guys, I'm super excited about today's aria because Juliette was the first main role I ever sang back when I was studying opera at Oberlin Conservatory. And it was a revelatory experience for me. The romance, the emotions, the gorgeous music. If I hadn't been hooked on opera already, I certainly would have been after that.
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted every way imaginable, including versions that tell the story through martial arts, zombies, and garden gnomes. Seriously, people, this is one versatile tragedy. The opera version by Charles Gounod stays pretty faithful to the original text, but, you know, in French.
So Roméo and Juliette are two teenagers from the warring Montague and Capulet families in Verona. These crazy kids fall in love at first sight, but they're constrained by the expectations and prejudices of their parents, which is not cool. They secretly elope despite the fact that Juliette is being forced to marry someone she doesn't love, which is really not cool.
When Roméo kills her cousin Tybalt and is exiled, Juliette turns to the friar, Frère Laurent, for help. The solution, obviously, is a potion that will make her appear dead for long enough to fool her parents, and then she and Roméo can run away together without anyone being the wiser.
Unfortunately, Roméo doesn't receive the Friar's message in time. He thinks Juliette's dead and drinks some poison so that he can join her in the afterlife. She wakes up just in time to watch him die, and stabs herself to death so that she can join him in the afterlife, where they live happily ever after.
Today, we'll hear the incredible scene where Juliette overcomes her fear and drinks the potion in the name of love. “Amour, ranime mon courage,” or “Love, revive my courage,” known as the Potion Aria, is an act of defiance, courage, and loyalty, and the music captures this in six very demanding minutes. In fact, it's so demanding that this scene has often been cut from productions of the opera. Fortunately, today's soprano is more than up to the challenge.
Diana Damrau made her role debut as Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, and it quickly became one of her favorite roles.
Diana Damrau: Yes, it is an absolute dream role. For dancers, for singers, and for actors. Thank you that I can talk about this because it brings so much light in my life. It's, it's, it's one of the most beautiful operas ever written, I think.
Rhiannon Giddens: Next, Met Music Director Yannick Nézet Séguin.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: I always thought that Roméo and Juliette by Gounod is maybe his best opera. I know there's Faust that's so popular and was one of the most, if not the most popular opera. But I really enjoy conducting this score very much and I feel it's one of the absolute masterpieces of French opera repertoire.
Rhiannon Giddens: Emma Smith is a professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford.
Emma Smith: Shakespeare is a fixed body of work from the 16th and early 17th centuries, but also this incredible, energetic, creative power in all kinds of new work and new thinking, new creativity, new ideas, and that sort of moving target is really exciting to me.
Rhiannon Giddens: And finally, British author and theater director Neil Bartlett, whose novels include The Disappearance Boy and Address Book. He directed a production of Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
Neil Bartlett: I've directed the play twice now. Both times I came out of the experience wung dry with admiration. What an astonishing piece of storytelling. If you show people a picture of a young man and a young woman, and she's on a balcony, they all know what the story is. You don't have to tell them. That's amazing.
Rhiannon Giddens: All right, now grab your tissues. It's time to meet our star-crossed lovers. Here's the Potion Aria from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.
Emma Smith: William Shakespeare's writing career really is two decades long – the last decade of the 16th century, the 1590s, and the first decade of the 17th. And Romeo and Juliet is relatively early in his career. It's around 1596, and it's an interesting play for that period in his writing since he is mostly interested in comic stories, romantic comedies, and in plays based on English history.
The Montagues and the Capulets are well-known as far back as Dante, and probably Shakespeare gets the play directly from a poem by a man called Arthur Brooke. And one of the abiding forms of interest about Romeo and Juliet is the sense that basically the story of two young lovers who defy their parents to be together ought to have worked out as a romantic comedy.
Neil Bartlett: I think the real genius of Shakespeare's original play is – if one can set aside for a moment the sheer, ravishing beauty of its poetry, some of the most shockingly beautiful images of love and death ever written – it's the violence of his critique of the way that a patriarchal society crushes its children, because it enters the story at an exact flashpoint of these two young people's lives.
Romeo is at the exact age when, as a young man, he's expected to be sowing his wild oats before he settles down to a very predictable and boring marriage. And Juliet is at the exact age when she becomes a supremely valuable commodity for her family. She's at the exact cusp between being a child and a woman.
And Shakespeare throws those two discontented teenagers together, and they light a fire which blows apart not just the city where they live, but every one of its institutions – religion, and marriage.
Emma Smith: Shakespeare's Verona is run by the Montagues and the Capulets, who are feuding and have been for generations. It's really significant, I think, in the play that we don't know why.
Neil Bartlett: No one ever says what the vendetta is about.
Emma Smith: And I think the effect of that is to make the feud seem senseless.
Neil Bartlett: The idiocy of two families hating each other to death for reasons that no one can remember is the backdrop of the love affair.
The madness of that world is there in the very first line of the play, the famous Prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity,” because we inevitably go, “Oh yeah, it's West Side Story, isn't it? Where the two lovers come from two radically different cultures.” The point about these two households is that they are in every respect alike. They're carbon copies of each other, but one has a son and one has a daughter.
Emma Smith: We hear that Juliet is not yet 14 and she has lived a pretty sheltered life with only her nurse, her companion since childhood, for company. Confession seems to be her only possible pretext for leaving the house, so we get a sense, I think, that she is very, very constrained. But her mind is extraordinarily active and agile and inventive and creative.
Diana Damrau: She was brought up in a convent. She's all protected. The society is very stiff.
Neil Bartlett: We're in a violently religious world. Everyone talks about heaven and hell and damnation all the way through the play.
Diana Damrau: But Juliet, at the beginning, she wants to live life finally. She has probably read a lot and is, is now full of expectations of how great and fantastic it will be.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: What we get when Juliet comes first on the stage is this wonderful, bright, brilliant character.
Neil Bartlett: This is a girl who's ripe for rebellion. She is a firework waiting to explode.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: She enters the room in a crowded party scene.
Neil Bartlett: They don't hold a party, they hold a ball. They are serious aristocracy and it's magnificent.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: The eyes all turn to see her and it's reflected in a lot of brilliance in the music.
Diana Damrau: In the first aria, Je veux vivre, which is a waltz, which has this movement, it's going… it's like a galloping horse, like a show jumper. You know, you go, da dum, da dum, da da da da da da da da dum, da dum, da da da da da da da dum. It's like, gallop, gallop, and jump! Gallop, gallop, and jump! And run, and circle, and it, it is… ah, it's beautiful.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: It is expressing youthful exuberance and joy, and I would say purity, like something very innocent about life.
Diana Damrau: It's just the purest kind of joy and expectations. Also, she's a virgin. And, uh, well, when I sang Juliet, I was, I don't know, how old was I? Forty-five? Forty-six? Well… and a mother of two children, and they were quite little then.
Emma Smith: When we meet Romeo, he is deep in love already, but not with Juliet. He's in love in a thwarted way with someone he hardly knows. So he's presented as quite immature, as somebody who is just about to meet somebody flesh and blood and experience the complete transformation that that brings about.
The scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, they meet at the ball at the Capulet's house. It’s full of this extraordinarily intense, overcharged language.
The lovers actually produce a sonnet together as they encounter each other. But some of these lines are hugely well-known. “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” And most famous of all, perhaps, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” This is perhaps one of Shakespeare's first big hit plays, and it captures the interest in love poetry, in beautiful expressions of desire, which are so crucial to Elizabethan culture and Elizabethan sensibility.
Neil Bartlett: The first thing they do is famously, they touch each other's hands, but in a chaste gesture, palm to palm, the play says. How beautiful is that? That before even your first date, in your first conversation, there's this chaste, mysterious touch. They hold their hands palm to palm. And of course, we all know what that means: you only ever do that in life when you pray. So even their very first gesture has this mysterious other dimension.
Diana Damrau: I think the first encounter with Romeo shakes her world. And, yes, it's like love at first sight. It's this electricity between the two. They just connect in one moment. And I remember I played that she looks at him and she cannot turn her eyes off. It's like she's on a standby, staring, uh, until, until she's pulled offstage. And then they're looking and searching for each other all the time ‘til they finally get to speak. And then they have this cheeky first moment where it's, it's very, it's very youthful. It's very joyful. So they find out how the other works.
It's clear, it's clear. They're made one for the other.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: What I find especially great and inspiring about this score is the development of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet. So, first meeting is magical. You can feel immediately in the music how their connection goes very quickly, but there is also something that is restrained. That's very touching. It's still very youthful, and it's letting it unfold naturally.
Neil Bartlett: The thing that everybody knows about Juliet is that she goes out onto a balcony, and she is as astonished as Romeo is to discover that suddenly, I would say for both of them, love is a trap door. It opens beneath their feet. They don't fly upwards. They plunge downwards into an unknown country.
I think that's another extraordinary thing about the balcony scene. The distance between them is vertical. She must reach down to something that dismays her as much as it excites her, and he gazes up to something that bewilders him, and they can't touch. How brilliant is that, that he delays the moment when they touch.
Diana Damrau: When you're being separate and can't look into each other's eyes, but your hearts are connected you attempt to say a little bit more and more direct, which you would never say facing the other person right 50 centimeters in front of you because you're completely then out of your comfort zone and you have to open up too much.
They're saying the most important things in the balcony scene. What they want, what their morality is, how their feelings are. It's incredible how close they are to each other. And how, somehow, the universe and the energy around them (which is the music, in this case), really keeps them as close as it can be. This tension, the nature, the night… there's this secrecy around it. It's amazing. This scene is just amazing.
Emma Smith: Almost immediately after the famous balcony scene, they find their way to Friar Lawrence, who thinks that and advises them that secretly marrying is going to be one of the ways that their families can be united, that the feud can be ended. So they are married and they spend the night together.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: There's also the duet after they spent their first really full night together and they need to wake up before it's really daylight and Romeo needs to leave.
I feel like there's an element of sensuality that's really in the music. It's in the orchestration, it's in the way the lines intertwine with each other.
The tenor, Roméo, is written pretty high up and Juliette pretty low, so they kind of meet in the middle. And as this is developing, you want to root for them. You're like, okay, this is really a match made in heaven. This cannot be better than that.
Diana Damrau: The beautiful duets – it's the closest you can get to a colleague on stage. Gounod's music is so deep, an immense specter of, of feelings are given to us, they hit us right direct in the soul. The music takes you. I get goosebumps when I… when I think of this.
Neil Bartlett: Once Juliet has fallen in love with Romeo – and profoundly in love with him – what is she going to do? Because she's threatened with a very immediate problem. Her parents are going to give her away in an arranged marriage to Count Paris. So she has to find a way out.
And in despair, she goes to someone who can't betray her secrets because he's a father confessor. This is really important in the plot – he's a priest so she can go to him and say, “Father I've got this problem. They're going to give me… give me and my body away to a man I don't love. Help me, help me.”
He comes up with what ought to be a foolproof plan. He has in his study a very powerful and very useful drug. You take it and it puts you into a coma for 24 hours. You appear to be dead, so the vital signs all stop. He says to Juliet, “Take this poison. They'll all think you're dead. They'll put you in the family vault. You'll be safe. You'll be inviolable. Then I'll tell Romeo to come and get you.”
It's a brilliant plan. What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?
Emma Smith: Two things happen that bring this relationship to its tragic conclusion, and one of them happens to Romeo and one happens to Juliet. The one that happens to Romeo is that he and his gang are drawn into a fight with the Capulets led by Tybalt. In that fight, Mercutio, Romeo's great friend, is killed, and in a violent rage, Romeo goes after Tybalt and kills him. And because of that, he, Romeo, has to leave the scene of the crime, effectively. He leaves Verona.
Meanwhile, for Juliet, her father now feels that it is important that she is married very quickly.
Neil Bartlett: Juliet's mother and father, in a terrible scene that takes place in her bedroom, have said to her, “If you don't marry this guy that we've set up for you, Count Paris, we will beat you and drag you to the church. You will not shame us.” It's one of the most frightening scenes, I think, in Shakespeare to see two ostensibly loving parents turning on their daughter, and turning on her like wolves.
Then she's left alone and she has hidden with her the vial of poison, people call it, but remember, it's not a poison – it's a drug to send her to sleep. So, she has two options. Take it, or don't take it.
Emma Smith: Juliet has this completely extraordinary soliloquy. And it's a soliloquy in the sort of technical sense, if you like, in that it is a conversation with oneself. It's about putting forward propositions and sort of debating them. This is exactly what Hamlet does. We all know about that, but Juliet is doing it here and she's doing it long before Shakespeare thinks about that play.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: The aria starts with a recit, which is very mysterious, and it might be in the opera the most tormented beginning, dark and exploding all of a sudden. So you immediately feel how nervous Juliet is about the whole thing.
Diana Damrau: So the music is quite spooky at the beginning. There are these, like, waves coming up in the string instruments. And the next one, and the next one, and it goes faster and faster ‘til it explodes out of her like, “Dieu! Quel frisson cours dans mes veines.” “Oh my God, I'm, I'm frozen inside. I'm, I'm, I'm shivering.” You feel her nerves. You feel that she is shivering inside and she's terrorized.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: This is one of the best uses of a recit, an accompagnato recit, which is with chords of the whole orchestra punctuating the lines.
Emma Smith: So, she imagines what might go wrong. What if the mixture doesn't work? Will she still have to marry Paris the next day? And, in fact, she has a knife with her as a sort of plan B. She's already decided that that can't happen. She wonders if she can trust the friar. She wonders if the friar is tricking her. Is he trying to kill her off so that his work in bringing the couple together without the knowledge of their parents doesn't get discovered? She's thinking through all these kind of possibilities and there's a real sense of her loneliness, her isolation.
So she's running through these fearful possibilities as she steps into this terrifying world, which is to take an unknown potion which will make her seem as if she's dead.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: And then immediately she says, “No, no, no, it's fine. I shouldn't be worried.” And then you get in this bright A major. Bum, bum, bum.
Diana Damrau: She puts all this fear away. And then you can hear in the orchestra. Wham, wham, wham. Okay, it's decided. Don't think such things. Whatever. I will never marry the Count. Never, ever. No, no, no.
Neil Bartlett: The great thing about the speech in the play and the aria in the opera is it's a fight. It's a fight between terror and courage. People think it's about love. It's not. It's more brutal than that. It's about the terror of death versus the terror of life.
DAMRAU: So she has two weapons. She has the dagger, she has the poison, and then she has herself and her incredible strength.
And that's what the aria is about. The journey she does, the desperation of, “My god, is this right what I'm doing?”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Then this little motif of the strings, two triplets in a row – trrr dum, trrr dum, trrr dum – set above a march rhythm from the basses – pom, pom, pom. So there's the march, which is a strength, and the trrr dum, trrr dum, is still like the butterflies in her stomach, because what she's about to do takes courage, but it's also, deep down she's not sure she's making the right choice.
Diana Damrau: So, at the beginning, you have the fear, then you have this moment where she's not so sure. Is it really right what she's doing? She says, “No, no, there is no way out of the story. I'm not going to marry Paris: decided.” She's asking for guidance by love. “Amour.” So she talks to love. “Ranime mon courage” means actually, “Bring life to my courage and from my heart just chasse l'effroi…” that means, from my heart just scare away all the scares.
So she's not hesitating and she gives herself the strength, praying love to give her strength. And I felt it like a little Zauberspruch, we say in German. Ah, like in Harry Potter, what would you say? It's a wish, a wish, a wizard's wish. So it has a lot, lots of layers.
Emma Smith: She's an extraordinary character. Shakespeare's first proper heroine. I think she anticipates characters we're going to get much later in his career, like, for example, Cleopatra, a much more mature figure, both herself and in terms of Shakespeare's writing. But Juliet, nevertheless, is much more than she might appear from the plot that she's placed in.
Neil Bartlett: All of Shakespeare's famous heroines were written for men and often very young men, teenage boys, to play, and lots of them work best if they are played by someone of that gender. I don't think that's true of Juliet. I think Juliet is a really great part for a woman, and that makes her unusual perhaps in the canon.
Emma Smith: One of the ways we can see this is a soliloquy about agency – and about a particular kind of female agency, I think, that's important – is the emphasis on “I.” I have a faint cold fear. I'll call them back. Shall I be married? I fear it is. What if I am laid into the tomb? Juliet's really occupying the ground of her own character, her own subjectivity, her own agency in this speech. And it's a great paradox… it's a supremely tragic paradox that that agency is directed towards her own demise.
Diana Damrau: So she has this poison in her hands and she thinks, “Verse, verse,” that means, “Give it to me.” It goes in semitones, chromatically. You could almost see her drinking it, but she stops again.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: It becomes super melodic in the primo tempo. “Verse toi-même ce breuvage.” That is a pure legato line. And what's tough technically is just to soar above the orchestra there and have this trill on the high A. And holding, of course, traditionally the money note, which is the high C. And it just shows Juliette blossoming into this fully-in-charge woman.
Diana Damrau: She sings a tribute to Roméo and to her love. The music just bursts out of this decision, this strength, into the most lyrical flying moment. There's all this love and all this hope for the future and everything is there in these six bars of music. It's her feelings and it's like, yes, I do it.
Neil Bartlett: Romeo, I drink to thee.
Diana Damrau: Ah, it's like a celebration. It feels ruby red, it feels heaven and hell in the same moment as well.
Neil Bartlett: I can feel the hair going up on the back of my neck. It's an astonishing moment. She leaves the audience behind at that moment. She's doing something that none of us can imagine. I love you so much, I will drink this poison.
Emma Smith: The second half of this long speech imagines in extraordinary Gothic detail what it will be like to be laid in the vault of the Capulets. Will she be stifled there? You know, will there be enough air to keep her alive? What will her ancestors, the spirit of her ancestors, the bodies of her ancestors, think about her being there?
Neil Bartlett: She suddenly says to herself, “Wait a minute, what if I wake up too soon? Never mind, what if I don't wake up at all? What if I wake up too soon, before Romeo's due to come and get me, and I will be locked in a tomb?” Okay, that's frightening enough, but the tomb is already occupied because Tybalt, her kinsman, has just been killed in the street and his body has just been put in the family vault.
So literally she says, “What happens if I wake up and I'm just not only locked into a barred and gloomy gothic family sepulcher, but there's a recently murdered kinsman that she knew and loved lying so close next to her that she will wake up touching the body. That's a brilliantly material image.
Emma Smith: She imagines “bloody Tybalt yet but green in earth.” And I think that green-ness means he's only recently been buried, but the idea of greenness and the body and the sort of decay and rot, the smells of the charnel house, these all come to her in this extraordinarily overwrought, panicky way.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Of course, middle section using a traditional form of an aria – ABA. But now, this time is to have, again, some doubt. “Mais si demain pourtant, dans ces caveaux funèbres, je m'éveillais avant son retour.” So, “But if I were to wake up before he comes back, how would I deal with this? A lot of diminished chords, you know, which harmonically are chords that are less settled to contrast with the more settled harmony of the main body of the aria.
Diana Damrau: Gounod, again, he wrote these shivers in the low instruments. She's not singing a melody. Now the words and the feelings are the most important.
It becomes intenser and higher, bar by bar. It's the anguish, the fear is coming up, and the horror vision. Gounod wrote this with this accompaniment, and the chromatical movement, like in steps ‘til it's almost not sustainable anymore.
Neil Bartlett: In the Shakespeare, she has a marvelous fantasy at that moment. She says, “Maybe I'll go crazy. If I wake up too early, I'll go so crazy, I'll smash open all the coffins of my male ancestors and throw their bones around.” Gounod and his librettist didn't dare to go quite that far. His Juliet in the opera goes, “Oh my God, I'll wake up and my hand will be touching the hand of Tybalt's recently dead body.” But, uh, goodness knows, that's a chilly enough thought.
Emma Smith: And this brings about an almost hysteria as she thinks about mandrakes, these mythological creatures with a human voice and a root in the ground, thinking that she will be distraught with hideous fears, have to fight off ghosts with bones of her ancestors.
This is a fantasy of death which is not about the afterlife, it's not about the spirit. It's about the awful physicality of dead bodies and decaying bodies and bones and the flesh. And this speech flips the language of the play from really just from the world of the living to the world of the dead. And that of course is a major tonal shift towards tragedy.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: This is a very scary moment, very dramatic, and it requires from the soprano to be able to articulate the text very much. He starts it very low in the voice, but I have to say he also scored it very well, Gounod, because the whole orchestra is also pretty low register. It's a progression that finishes where Gounod says, “Avec horreur,” – with horror – “Ma main rencontrera sa main,” my hand will meet his hand.
You know, it's all this in between life or death at that moment, and this doubt.
Diana Damrau: Out of these chromatic movements, becoming more and more intense, going to crescendo molto, and she says, “Non! Fantôme!” All the ghosts! Disparesse! Go away! Go away! And again, she kicks away all the fear, and all the visions, and all the bad things, because she knows she has to do this, and she will do it.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Change of key to C major, which is kind of a foreign key to the aria, but it's also maybe the most reassuring key. Another trill is leading us to the main body of the aria, the A section, exactly verbatim.
Diana Damrau: The sea is calming again. So does her blood, so does her mind. And then, she starts again. “Amour, ranime mon courage.” So it's her wizard moment again. Love, love, she believes in love.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: And that's where it's treacherous for the soprano, because by that time, there's so much investment dramatically. It's also not early in the opera. This comes pretty far out in the opera. So the stamina that is required from the soprano is amazing.
This aria is often cut from a performance of Roméo et Juliette because this aria is very, very difficult to sing. Especially if you get from a soprano who did “Je veux vivre” amazingly at the beginning of the opera, getting to this medium, meaty, long lines and held high notes. It's almost a spinto aria.
And it's, it's just an amazing way of displaying and showcasing all the qualities of a soprano. You feel you almost need different sopranos from beginning to end. It's really a teenage girl turned woman overnight, and she is forcefully getting the courage to take charge of her own destiny.
Emma Smith: Remember, this is Juliet who's scarcely been out of her own house. she's had this extraordinarily narrow, uh, experience of the world. And here she is thinking about crossing the border, crossing the threshold, almost into death.
Diana Damrau: As an artist, as a singer, the feelings we have can get quite, how you say, real. And first of all, I think you should not let yourself, uh, being carried away by the feelings of Juliette or the feelings you might have with this beautiful music.
And you just want to give everything you have and more. So be aware of the more. I mean, for, for the ears of the audience, no, you must really be in charge of your vocal technique because it always gets higher. You start a phrase on one note and then you go one note higher and then again, one note higher. These movements up are for coloratura sopranos different than for a dramatic voice, because they go like, “Thank you!” And we go like, “Oh no. Oh, okay. Here. Yes. Oh, I take it from the top.” So, uh, you really have to be in charge of this. Like a pilot in the airplane seeing the, the, yeah, where he has to fly to. And then the alarm lights like, woo, dramatic line, be careful. And, and then, okay, keep the trill easy. Don't sing fortissimo. You're not a trumpet. It's always like the subconsciousness should give you these little, not warnings, like little, hello, hello. Are you still here? Are you still here? You are not Juliet at the moment. You are an instrument. Beware of your instrument. Take care of your instrument and, and you will have great fun.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: “Oh, Romeo. Je bois á tois.” I drink to you. She says it a few times to convince herself to do it. And then the last one is really a trill. I will drink to you. It needs this kind of pause to finally do something that you're not quite sure that you should be doing.
Diana Damrau: She chooses love with the breuvage, with the poison, and she ends triumphant.
Then she takes the poison and five bars later, she's already almost gone.
Neil Bartlett: What's the story of Romeo and Juliet? Two people who want to be together and the world won't let them be together. And the only way they can be together finally is as two dead bodies in the tomb. And that's why I think the story grips like a vice still. There are only two realities that matter. One is love, and the other is death.
And in the last image of that play, the two great truths of life, they clash. They don't just clash. It's a car crash. It's not just Romeo and Juliet that are dead at the end of the play. It's the whole system which attempted to defeat their love and fails.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Romeo and Juliet – the most inspiring story of all time? I mean, arguably yes, because we all were young, we all fell in love for the first time. And each, in our own way, I think we all have things that get in the way of our love. Oh, it's not what our parents thought we would fall in love with. Oh, that person doesn't live near enough. Or that person doesn't have the same background. There's so many things which come in the way of pure love that I think we can all relate to the Romeo and Juliet story.
Emma Smith: The very last two lines of the play are a rhyming couplet, as they often are, and it's the prince saying, “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And it's a good reminder that we're so used to the couple, Romeo and Juliet, just inverting them in that way and focusing on Juliet really makes a difference, I think, to how we see this play.
And perhaps one of the reasons that it has survived and has laid itself into our cultural consciousness in the way that it has is because Juliet is so much more than the secondary figure in this partnership. It gives us, perhaps unexpectedly, a modern, autonomous, sexual and desiring heroine
Diana Damrau: You know, I always say music and singing is my religion. These beautiful stories, these beautiful sounds and words and persons we are incarnating, it really cleans up your mind, your heart and your soul. And to experience Juliet's path – it was so overwhelming, this pure love, this loyalty, and this strength Juliet has to stand up, to fight for her love, to find solutions, to take this poison, to be able to escape, and to live her love and her dreams.
So this music and these treasures we are given by such great masters, composers like Gounod, it is medicine for our souls and it gives us so much, and I think it can save a lot. Save ourselves.
Rhiannon Giddens: Soprano Diana Damrau, Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith, and author and director Neil Bartlett decoding “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.
Diana will be back to sing it for you after the break.
Now that Juliet has found her Romeo, she's gonna do whatever it takes to be with him forever, family feud be damned. But she's still gotta work up the courage to drink the potion. In this dramatic act 4 aria, Juliette confronts her fear and makes her choice. Here is Diana Damrau singing “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.
And there it is. In one fell sip, the tragic fate of history's all-time greatest star-crossed lovers is sealed. That was Diana Damrau singing the incredible Act 4 Potion Aria, “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod.
Well, friends, I can't believe it went by so fast, but that's it for this season of Aria Code.
It's been so unbelievably heartwarming to hear over the past while so many questions. When is Aria Code coming back? When is the next season of Aria Code? I need Aria Code right now! So it's been incredible to share this music and these stories with you again.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced, edited, and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown.
I'd like to give a huge thanks for help recording this episode to the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, where I'm currently an artist in residence.
I'm Rhiannon Giddens. See you later!
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.