Charles Gounod had composed eight operas before completing Roméo et Juliette in 1867. Eight years had passed since Gounod's Faust propelled him to fame as an opera composer, and in between that work and Roméo et Juliette stood four dramatic works whose merits had not been consistently acclaimed. Roméo et Juliette premièred at Paris' Théâtre-Lyrique in 1867, and was first performed at the Opéra in 1888. Although it stands in second place to Faust, Roméo et Juliette remains one of Gounod's best-loved creations.
Julies Barbier and Michel Carré followed Shakespeare's tragedy closely, but with some alterations, in crafting their libretto for Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Earlier in the century, Paris had experienced "Shakespearomanie" as French Romantics were overwhelmed by the transcendent drama of the playwright's works. Gounod's Roméo et Juliette comes relatively late in a line of operatic treatments of the subject, about many of which Hector Berlioz wrote less than flatteringly in his 1859 essay on Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830).
Indeed, some of Gounod's music recalls that of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette symphony. Gounod begins his opera's overture with a theme stated three times by the trombones, followed by a fugato passage in the strings, essentially reversing the string fugato passage and low brass oration of the Introduction of the Berlioz work. The crystalline orchestration of Mercutio's Ballade de la Reine Mab in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette owes a debt to Berlioz's purely instrumental Queen Mab Scherzo, in which high woodwinds and buoyant violins musically characterize the mischievous dream fairy, and in which orchestration, as Beth Shamgar noted in 1988, plays a central role in articulating the narrative of Shakespeare's Queen Mab speech. Gounod's treatment of the tomb scene recalls Berlioz's purely instrumental version of it in his symphony. Sputtering fortissimo chords in the trombones -- later scored for trombones, horns, woodwinds, and strings -- convey Romeo's convulsions as the poison he drinks, believing Juliet to be dead, takes effect. Berlioz had conceived a similar, although more rhythmically charged, musical treatment of this aspect of the tomb scene. Quite apart from Berlioz's influence, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette opera contains the standard features of French opera, including arias in traditional formal arrangements, virtuosic solo vocal writing, large choral finales derived from smaller ensemble pieces, and instances of diagetic music. Juliette's Act One ariette (Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve qui m'enivre) is a tuneful rondo-form waltz (a generic to the music of the Capulets' party that constitutes the basis of this scene) showcasing coloratura moments in a lyrical context. At the end of Act Three, a chorus of townspeople unites with the principal soloists in a grand finale. The solo organ music in Act Four functions simultaneously as diagetic music for the choir's procession to the wedding planned for Juliette and Paris and as an introduction to Capulet's aria Ma fille cede aux vœux du fiancé, which it continues to accompany.