7 remarkable musical adaptations of Romeo and Juliet

22 Aug 2018

It is the greatest love story ever told (and retold). Originating from a 16th century Italian tale and popularised by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love affair has inspired compositions for operas, symphonies, ballets, musicals and films.

Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830) - Opera

It was a last-minute commission for Bellini who had only six weeks to write the opera after Pacini was unable to fulfil his contract for Teatro La Fenice. Bellini teamed up with regular collaborator Felice Romani who reworked his Giulietta e Romeo libretto originally written for Vaccai’s 1825 opera. Bellini reused material from his opera Zaira and a student composition to get it done in time.

In Bellini’s take, Romeo and Juliet are already in love before the opera begins. The simplified story, based on Italian sources, focuses on the rivalry between the two political factions and the faked death/missed message debacle. While there is no masked ball or balcony scene, there is plenty of melancholic longing and sumptuous bel canto.


Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1839) - Symphonie Dramatique 

Berlioz had lifelong love affair with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and recalling his first experience, wrote: ‘By the third act, fallen shattered to my knees, hardly breathing and suffering as if an iron fist had grasped my heart, I proclaimed with utter conviction, “ah! I am lost”.’ He was disillusioned with Bellini’s version, complaining that it had lost much of Shakespeare’s plot and atmosphere, perhaps unaware that it was based on an Italian play.

Berlioz went on to write his own adaptation, a large-scale choral symphony over 90 minutes in length for 100 musicians and a chorus almost as big. A symphony with a libretto, over two-thirds of the score is instrumental, depicting moods and psychological states of play. Although there are three soloists, none of them are Romeo or Juliet, who never have their voices heard. 


Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (1867) - Opera

Of the 20 or so operas based on Romeo and Juliet, Gounod’s achievement is perhaps the most enduring. It closely follows Shakespeare’s tragedy, even directly quoting lines from the Bard in the libretto from Jules Barbier and Michael Carré, who also wrote Gounod’s adaptation of Faust.

Focusing on the romance between the star-crossed lovers, Gounod ramps up the passion with no less than four ravishing love duets between Romeo and Juliet. He even takes the scene in the crypt one step further with the effects of the poison taking long enough for Romeo to sing a duet with his lover before they die together.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (1880) - Fantasy Overture

Tchaikovsky was encouraged by his mentor Balakirev to write a composition based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Balakirev even sending the young composer his own musical ideas and modifications. The first version was completed in 1870 but Tchaikovsky revised it twice (in 1872 and 1880) and the third version remains in the repertoire today.

Arguably the great composer’s first real masterpiece, it is one of the most unashamedly romantic takes on Romeo and Juliet. A lush tone poem in sonata form based around three main themes depicting Friar Lawrence, strife and love. The yearning love theme is one of the greatest melodies ever written, recognisable from films and TV shows as diverse as The Jazz Singer, Moonraker, Wayne’s World, SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.


Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) - Ballet

Prokofiev accepted a lucrative commission for the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky) as a sort of homecoming to Moscow after nearly 20 years working abroad. With its high passion and drama, Romeo and Juliet lends itself to the romantic art of ballet, but Prokofiev wanted a happy ending as ‘living people can dance, the dying cannot’.

The project had a troubled genesis in a climate of artistic subjugation under an oppressive Communist regime. Pressure from Stalin’s government made Prokofiev reinstate the tragic ending. When he couldn’t get the work performed in Russia, Prokofiev derived 10 piano pieces and three orchestral suites from it which became some of his most loved music. After a premiere in Czechoslovakia, the ballet did eventually make it to the Russian stage at the Kirov in 1940, in an edited format.


Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) - Musical

A remarkable collaboration between Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography), West Side Story is a high point of American musical theatre. Full of unforgettable tunes such as ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘Maria’ it blends lyric theatre, jazz, opera and Latin American influences.

Robbins, Laurents and Bernstein had started working on a musical theatre version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1949, initially dubbed East Side Story and following a doomed love affair between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy. But in the end the Capulets and the Montagues became the Sharks and the Jets in a Puerto Rican community. West Side Story brought Romeo and Juliet into the 20th century, touching on social issues such as gang warfare, poverty, immigration and racism.


Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1997) - Film

The Australian director presented Shakespeare on film like it had never been seen before in a kinetic punk-rock version for the MTV generation. The setting is Verona Beach in a sun-drenched yet decaying contemporary California. Hawaiian shirts and platform boots are the preferred fashion of gang members who brandish guns and holler Shakespeare’s lines accompanied by a soundtrack of nineties rock and pop hits.

Alongside the rock numbers of Radiohead, Garbage and Everclear is a score composed by Craig Armstrong together with producers Nelle Hooper and Marius de Vries. Armstrong won the 1997 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for his score which includes beautiful orchestral moments such ‘O Verona’, ‘Balcony Scene’ and ‘Slow Movements’.


By Beata Bowes