Soprano Bárbara Llanes, considered by critics to be one of Cuba’s best lyric singers due to her grand technique and the power of her performances, played Juliet in the Cuban premiere of Gounod’s opera. Photo: tomada de Cubasí

The most famous love story in literature, Romeo and Juliet, written in the 16th century by William Shakespeare, was made into a wonderful opera by Charles Gounod in the 19th century. Each year, this piece is performed hundreds of times around the world. Havana saw its premiere this 2018. Captivating readers and audiences alike over five centuries, there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s piece is a true classic.

Great expectations surrounded the premiere, which saw just two performances in the Avellaneda Hall of Cuba’s National Theater, insufficient to fully appreciate such a cultural event.

However, this art form has a strong tradition on the island, and there is much to thank the National Lyric Theater of Cuba for, on allowing Cuban lovers of opera to enjoy this version, in two acts.

The original opera based on the Shakespearean tragedy, which premiered in 1867 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, features a prologue and five acts, and the libretto is the work of Jules Barbier and Michael Carré. It was a great success for the composer, thanks to the magnificent arias and the passionate love duets.

As was explained in a press conference held prior to the premiere, this version was the work of Helson Hernández, artistic director of the National Lyric Theater, who summarized the main argument of the piece, emphasizing the loving relationship between the two protagonists.

Hernández stated that he had opted for a simple show, yet some critics considered it too minimalist.

The piece also saw the attractive presence of Bárbara Llanes in the leading role of Juliet, one of Cuba’s most renowned lyric sopranos who, as usual, offered a perfect performance, especially the beautiful aria of the first act, “Je veux vivre,” which speaks of making the most of youthful happiness.

Painting dated 1884 by Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) of the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which inspired one of the memorable arias of Gounod’s opera version. Photo: Public domain

To further distinguish this opera, “Je veux vivre” has been sung by the legendary Adelina Patti — who performed in the famous Tacón Theater, today the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana — and by other great sopranos such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.

A young tenor of the Lyric Theater, Harold López, made his debut in the starring role of Romeo, and bravely undertook an aria that continues to captivate, “Ah! Lève-toi, Soleil!” a beautiful declaration of love, in Juliet’s garden, which has also had notable performers, among them Franco Corelli, Alfredo Kraus, and Plácido Domingo.

French soprano Juliette Vialle was also invited to share the role of Stéphano, Romeo’s page, traditionally played by a woman, with the young Cuban soprano Angélica Martínez.

Invited to conduct the Symphony Orchestra of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT), was Israeli Assaf Leibowits, who has been living in Chile for several years. During his career, he has conducted the French National Orchestra, Orchestra for Peace, International Symphony Orchestra and the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The premiere of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet was among festivities which began in 2017 to mark the 55th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s National Lyric Theater, continuing a rich history that dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the most renowned opera companies and singers performed in Havana, including the likes of Maria Barrientos, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Titta Rufo; to whom must be added Kirsten Flagstad, Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Ángeles and Pedro Lavirgen, in the 20th century

Of the Cuban figures, we could mention an endless list of wonderful voices from all generations: José Lematt, Ana Menéndez, Ángel Menéndez, Armando Pico, Gladys Puig, Ramón Calzadilla, Alba Marina, María Remolá, Pedro Arias, Yolanda Hernández, María Eugenia Barrios, Adolfo Casas, Lázara María Lladó, Hugo Marcos, María Luisa Clark, Lucy Ferrero and Ulises Aquino, to name but a few.

They performed the greats by Pergolesi, Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Wagner, and the Lyric Theater continues to do so today. For example, in 2016, Wagner’s Tannhäuser premiered in Havana, version and staging by German Director, Andreas Baesler.

Tannhäuser was the fourth of Wagner’s operas to be performed in Cuba, preceded by Lohengrin (Teatro Tacón, 1891); Tristan und Isolde (Teatro Auditórium, 1948) and The Flying Dutchman (Grand Theater of Havana, 2013).

The anniversary performances began in June 2017 with the premiere of Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), a Baroque classic, considered the first English national opera. This was a co-production of the National Lyric Theater, the National Ballet of Cuba, and Florida State University. The National Symphony Orchestra, which provided the music, was conducted by Nathalie Marin, of France.

In November, the emblematic Cuban zarzuela Cecilia Valdés, by Gonzalo Roig, returned to the stage, followed by a new staging of La Traviata, by Verdi.

This year, the uninterrupted celebrations have delighted audiences with the long-awaited premiere of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers of Verona immortalized by Shakespeare, and put to beautiful music by Gounod