George Hall on Gounod, the 19th-century French Opera master

Gounod dramatised the romance of others in operas such as Roméo et Juliette. But the composer's own life story was also full of thrills and spills

Before Bizet's Carmen, the world's most popular opera was Gounod's Faust, a cure for all box-office ills almost from the moment of its Parisian premiere in 1859. Not far behind in popularity was another work by the 19th-century French master, his Roméo et Juliette, first staged in 1867. But fashions change, and Charles

Gounod's operas, along with much of the French 19th-century repertory, lapsed from the international stage, virtually disappearing in the postwar era. Recently, though, Faust has regained some of its momentum, so too has Roméo, which makes its belated debut at the Salzburg Festival this summer and is part of Opera North's current Shakespeare season.

Whatever criticisms have been made of Faust over the years, no one has ever doubted Gounod's theatrical gifts, and in some respects Romeo and Juliet was a subject even better suited to them than Goethe's poetic drama. Gounod's strengths were best realised in scenes of intimacy. Though Faust has its share of noisy razzmatazz, it is in the nocturnal garden scene, in which Faust seduces Marguerite to music of fragrant delicacy, that Gounod's score reaches its highest point. In Roméo, Gounod was able to capitalise on these more subtle aspects of operatic writing in a work that concentrated on love at its most innocently romantic.

Gounod's librettists, Barbier and Carré, made a good job of refashioning Shakespeare's play for the opera stage, starting off with a lively ball scene and finding room for high drama in the duels. But they also included an unprecedented number of love duets - four in all - charting the trajectory of Romeo and Juliet's relationship from the exploratory formality of their first meeting, set as a deliberately old-fashioned madrigal, to the passionate re-engagement and then dying fall in the tomb scene.

In his days as a music critic, George Bernard Shaw could be caustic about Gounod - especially his lengthy oratorios - but he found much of his operatic music "irresistibly charming". It's a description that could be applied to Gounod himself. Born in Paris in 1818, the son of a painter and a pianist, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the prestigious Prix de Rome prize that allowed high-flying students a year in Italy to broaden their minds and imbibe art. In Gounod's case this involved enthusiastic exposure to the church music of Palestrina, and to the sermons of a Dominican preacher. A career as a priest briefly beckoned: he studied at a seminary while composing the first of his many religious works. But there were other temptations, notably the theatre and women. His first opera came about through the encouragement of Pauline Viardot, the younger sister of the legendary mezzo soprano Maria Malibran and herself an electrifying operatic actress (Dickens considered her command of the stage unsurpassed). She had the power to arrange a commission for an unknown composer at the elevated Paris Opéra, and duly starred in Gounod's Sapho - loosely based on the subject of the poet of Lesbos, though with any lesbian tendencies expunged - in both Paris and London in 1851. It was a critical rather than commercial success, but Gounod was nevertheless launched in high style.

It was Faust that pushed him into the front rank of opera composers, a position confirmed eight years later by Roméo et Juliette. His career was going splendidly when the Franco-Prussian war broke out - an event that indirectly led to the most bizarre episode of his life, which centred on his attachment to an extraordinary Englishwoman called Georgina Weldon. In 1852 Gounod had married Anna Zimmermann, the daughter of his piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. It seems unlikely that it was a happy marriage, and he later admitted to a number of affairs.

But it was as an apparently dutiful husband and father that in 1871 Gounod sought refuge for himself and his family in London from the horrors of the Siege of Paris. There, at a musical evening, he met Weldon, an ambitious amateur singer, 19 years his junior and also married. Their mutual attraction was instantaneous. When he heard her sing, he burst into tears and decided she must create a central role in his next opera, Polyeucte. Georgina - whose vocal career scarcely existed - was equally thrilled at having captured the attention of one of the most famous composers of the day.

As Gounod's fascination with Georgina grew, he decided on a radical step. Arriving at the Weldons' home in Tavistock Square one day in May 1872, he announced that he could no longer live with his wife. Within a few days, Mme Gounod had returned to Paris and Gounod had moved in with the Weldons. He would remain with them for three years, causing a scandal in both Paris and London.

When he launched a new choral society at the recently opened Royal Albert Hall, it was Georgina who sang the solo part in his cantata Gallia, lamenting the recent sufferings of France, and repeated it when he took the work to Paris. But the performances of Gallia were the high point of Georgina's vocal career. Few others were impressed by her, and when her relationship with Gounod ended there were few offers of vocal engagements. He, on the other hand, spent his time at her home quite profitably, writing incidental music for a Parisian production of Jeanne d'Arc and working on his vast oratorio The Redemption. But his relationship with Georgina was bumpy, and her advice often spectacularly bad. She persuaded Gounod not to accept the highly prestigious post of director of the Paris Conservatoire. Worse, dissatisfied with the level of payment from his English publisher, Novello, the two of them concocted a series of articles in which Gounod clearly libelled the firm. They sued, and he lost. He refused to pay up and prison threatened until his mother-in-law discharged the debt.

Whatever the nature of the appeal of the Weldon household, Gounod must have realised that his relationship with Georgina was destroying his career. After suffering a nervous collapse in 1874, he was escorted back to Paris by a doctor sent by his family to rescue him.

Georgina retaliated by holding on to the manuscript of Polyeucte, which Gounod was forced to rewrite from memory, and later sued him in the courts for expenses relating to his stay at her home, including £282 for having his works engraved, £140 for his board and lodging, and £48 for her participation in rehearsals. But the biggest item was a staggering £5,000 for "damages as compensation for the injury done by infamous calumnies, lies and libels". The total came close to £10,000, and she won. Gounod never paid it, effectively debarring himself from ever returning to England.

In Gounod's anodyne autobiography there is no mention of Georgina, though in her own various publications she has plenty to say about him. There would be no rapprochement, although after Gounod's death in 1893 Georgina, by then an ardent spiritualist, renewed communication with him through a medium, with gratifying results. In fact her relationship with the dead composer was probably better than it had ever been while he was alive, when it was anything but Romeo and Juliet.

· Roméo et Juliette is at the Lowry, Salford, tonight, and at New Victoria Theatre, Woking on June 17 and 20


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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