Retrospective: Famous Sopranos to Take On Gounod’s ‘Romeo et Juliette’ At The Metropolitan Opera

By Francisco Salazar

On Dec. 31 Diana Damrau will make her role debut as Juliette in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” in a special New Year’s Eve gala at the Metropolitan Opera. The occasion will also mark the premiere of Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed staging from the Salzburg Festival. With such a momentous occasion Operawire takes a look at past Juliettes who have graced the Met stage over the 329 times the work has been presented at the Metropolitan Opera.

Marcella Sembrich

Sembrich was the Metropolitan Opera’s first Juliette. Interestingly enough the soprano performed the role in 1884 with Italo Campini at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The company did not perform the opera in the house until 1891 when it opened the season. Sembrich would perform Juliette two more times in 1898 and 1900.

Nellie Melba

The Australian soprano first performed Juliette at the Met in 1894 with Jean de Reszke. In the famed waltz “Je Veux Vivre” the soprano encored her audience after thunderous applause. During one performance Melba also performed “Home sweet home” as an encore and she was accompanied by tenor Reszke on piano. The soprano also performed the role alongside Thomas Salignac in 1897 and Albert Saléza in 1900. Her final performance in the role came 1901.

Geraldine Farrar

The acclaimed American soprano first sang the role in 1906 during Opening Night of the 1906-07 season. Interestingly she was making her Met debut alongside fellow debutante Charles Rousselière who was her Romeo. She performed the role five times during that season and in 1911 returned to the role for three performances alongside Dmitri Smirnoff.

Lucrezia Bori

After an 11 year absence Bori sang her first Juliette alongside the great Beniamino Gigli. During that run the soprano performed the role 13 times. She later returned to it in 1924, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933 and 1934. Her final performance of the role was in 1934 alongside Charles Hackett.

Bidú Sayao

Already an established singer at the Met, Brazilian soprano Sayao performed the role for the first time at the Met in 1937 alongside Richard Crooks and Ezio Pinza. She performed the role three times in that season and returned to it in 1947. Her performance alongside Jussi Björling was broadcast and was recently rebroadcast on the Met’s Sirius FM channel.

 Mirella Freni

The opera disappeared from the Met’s repertoire for 20 years before Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli took on the roles. Their performances in 1967 and 1968 are today legendary and that season the opera was performed 22 times. Of those performances Freni took part in all but one. However, the performance that was broadcast on radio did not include Corelli. For the broadcast Niccolai Gedda sang the role of Romeo.

Anna Moffo

Beloved by Met audiences, Moffo took on the role of Juliette for the first time in 1968 for one performance. She later performed the role five more times in 1972 alongside Franco Corelli, George Shirley and William Lewis. One of her performances was conducted by the esteemed conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Judith Blegen

American soprano opened the 1974 run of Gounod’s opera alongside Placido Domingo. The was opera shown 16 times in that season and the Oct. 8 performance was a replacement for Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani,” which was supposed to be performed on that date. In that run Blegen also performed with Corelli and their performance was broadcast live. Her final performance in the role was in 1975 also alongside Corelli.

Catherine Malfitano

The American soprano revived the work in 1986 after an 11 year absence at the Met. The soprano sang alongside Neil Shicoff and she was the first soprano in the company’s history to perform the Poison aria. The aria was famously cut due to the amount of high Cs required for the soprano. Malfitano, who was recognized for her versatility performed the role 12 times that season and one of the performances was broadcast.

Ruth Ann Swenson

In 1996 Swenson brought back the work alongside Richard Leech after a ten year absence. She performed the role of Juliette seven times with Leech. While there was no radio broadcast her interpretation was recorded with Placido Domingo for RCA Victor.

Angela Gheorghiu 

The Romanian soprano became a fixture at the Met when she performed Juliette alongside her then husband Robert Alagna. The couple’s performances are now legendary and this run which consisted of six performances was broadcast on radio. The run also marked the debut of famed conductor Bertrand de Billy.

Natalie Dessay

The French Coloratura soprano brought the role to the Met in 2005 in a new production by Guy Joosten. She performed alongside Ramon Vargas and superstar Mezzo Joyce DiDonato.  Dessay famously missed opening night due to illness but she recovered thereafter and she sang the remaining eight performances.

Anna Netrebko

Netrebko was the last major superstar to perform the role at the Met. Famously she had a total of four Romeos after Rolando Villazon cancelled the full run. Her tenors included Roberto Alagna, Joseph Kaiser, Matthew Polenzani and Marcello Giordani. The run included 11 performances of which Netrebko sang every single one including a Live in HD broadcast. Netrebko’s run also marked the debut of Isabel Leonard.

Hei-Kyung Hong

The Korean soprano reemerged as a big star at the Met when she famously stepped into the role of Juliette a few days before opening night. She sang alongside Piotr Beczala and James Morris and Placido Domingo conducted the run.

Other sopranos who have taken on Juliette are Frances Saville who made her Met debut in the role, Suzanne Adams, Sibyl Sanderson, Aïno Ackté, Grace Moore, Eidé Norena, Patrice Munsel, Jeannette Pilou, Adriana Maliponte, Gail Robinson, Monique Baudoin, Cecilia Gasdia, and Maureen O’Flynn who also made her Met debut in the role.


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