Aria Code

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most famous love story in the Western canon. It’s a tale so embedded in our culture — one that has seen so many iterations and retellings — it might feel hard to appreciate its original pathos, and the way it perfectly distills the intersections of young romance, idealism, and rebellion.

In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and guests take a fresh look at this classic by focusing on the character of Juliet and her pivotal decision to take the friar’s draught, a concoction that will help her feign death long enough to escape an arranged marriage and run away with Romeo. It’s both an act of tremendous courage and one that sets their tragedy in motion.

In Charles Gounod’s operatic retelling, the aria Juliet delivers as she wrestles away her fear is so difficult that it’s often cut from productions. But it’s a pivotal moment, and a testament to Juiet’s agency. Soprano Diana Damrau is up to the task, and delivers a rendition of “Amour, ranime mon courage” — otherwise known as the “poison aria” — from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.


Soprano Diana Damrau is among the most celebrated opera singers of her generation. She’s graced the stages of opera houses all over the world, and sung the role of Juliette at both The Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. After her debut as Juliette in 2016, it quickly became a favorite. For her, Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” is “one of the most beautiful operas ever written.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin serves as music director for the Met Opera orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, among many other appointments and collaborations with esteemed orchestras. In his opinion, “Roméo et Juliette” beats out “Faust” as Gounod’s best opera.

Emma Smith is a Shakespeare scholar and critic at the University of Oxford. Among her publications is the book “This Is Shakespeare,” which was a Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Smith frequently works with theater companies on their productions of Shakespeare plays and consults for film and television.

Acclaimed British author and theater director Neil Bartlett, whose novels include “The Disappearance Boy” and “Address Book,” directed “Romeo and Juliet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. He says the experience leaves him feeling “wrung dry with admiration.”