Berlioz Romeo and Juliet – Andrew Davis BBC SO Barbican

A foreunner of the Shakespeare 400 marathon to come, Hector Berlioz Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette)  Op 17 (1839)  with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO at the Barbican Hall.  An inspired choice! Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet defies categories. It is an orchestra-drama, a symphony where voices are part of the orchestral palette. The story unfolds in the vivid musical tableaux, like scenes in a play, but the critical sections are presented without words.  It’s an opera without “roles” in the usual sense, pulled together at the end by a long, stunning passage for bass (David Soar).. The mezzo-soprano (Michèle Losier) Juliet has one big aria, and the tenor gets relatively little to sing at all.  Just as Mendelssohn wrote Lieder ohne Worte, Berlioz writes opera without words,

Shakespeare carried no cultural baggage for continental European audiences in Berlioz’s time, so the composer could do pretty much his own take on the story, using the Garrick version of the play brought to Paris in 1827 by Charles Kemble, which  Berlioz attended and where he became infatuated with Harriet Smithson.  The picture at right shows Smithson and Kemble in a production in the 1840’s. In an age before close-ups and amplification, theatre practice would have to have been more exaggerated than we’re used to now. Perhaps Berlioz, a theatre critic, intuited that good orchestral writing had the potential to express feelings in greater complexity than most actors at the time were capable of.

Certainly, the exotic instrumentation would have been part of its appeal. Berlioz employed an ophicleide, which looks as weird as it sounds and adds a wayward malevolence.  The BBC SO, however, isn’t a period instrument ensemble so Davis made the most of the flamboyant richness modern instruments can offer.  Big, lush strings, fabulously punchy brass, and even a saxophone, which Berlioz liked so much that he included it in his Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration, avidly studied by Mahler and Strauss, who almost certainly didn’t actually hear Romeo and Juliet, though Richard Wagner did. I’d forgotten that he’d seen it in Paris as a young man, though I immediately thought of him when hearing the theme in the Introduction that sounds strikingly similar to the motif  “Das Rheingold”.

The Introduction reflects the turmoil that forms the background to the play. Turbulent cross-currents, a strange series of choral, solo and instrumental sequences create innate tension. The orchestra creates dance figures, suggesting the gaiety of the ball, and also more brutish themes, suggesting violence. For a moment, the turmoil is anchored by the bass, David Soar. Soar sang the same parts in Romeo and Juliet  at the Salzburg Festival in 2010, and his experience shows: a voice of great authority.  I first heard him as one of the Workmen in Wozzeck in October 2009. He’s singing Quince at Glyndebourne this summer. Michèle Losier sang the extended mezzo strophe and Samuel Boden the magical Queen Mab scherzetto.

In the second of the seven scenes, Romeo is alone. This is the Garrick interpolation, which doesn’t exist in Shakespeare. So much for the fuss about modern directors changing things! It’s more traditional than some realize.  This  gave Berlioz a chance to write more contemplative music,  which is artistically correct, since it distances Romeo from the crowd around him and in  the Introduction. Wonderful oboe melody, evoking, even at this stage in the story, a sense of doom.  Even more beautiful is the Love Scene  where the lovers are depicted as horn and cello and flute and cor anglais, entwined in rondo-like embrace.  In the fourth  scene, Queen Mab, the Dream Fairy, Berlioz takes even more liberties, writing an extended scherzo, whose central significance in the overall design of the symphony suggests that, for Berlioz, enchantment played a greater part in the drama than Shakespeare would have given it.  It’s interesting how the three entirely orchestral scenes (2, 4 and 6) are those in which much of the action takes place. Yet Berlioz doesn’t need words, only orchestra.

Even in scene 5 Berlioz goes for dramatic truth rather than rigid adherence to Shakespeare’s original, though it’s based on Garrick. The funeral march allows the imagination to picture proceedings. We can hear the mourners sing, and quiet violin figures suggesting Romeo’s hidden presence, waiting for the moment he can at last emerge. In Garrick, Juliet wakes up and then stabs herself when she finds Romeo dead.  A bit OTT perhaps but it makes for good music. Yet again, Berlioz’s faith in his vision of the work asserts itself. While Garrick’s version ended in the tomb, Berlioz reverts to Shakespeare again, and to the feuding families. The cross-currents of the Introduction revive,  but Friar Laurence intervenes. David Soar sang the long recitative and aria with majesty, for the part is written with such authority that the monk seems more like ancient prophet.  While the Duke couldn’t change things, Friar Laurence can. He’s got the better music! Maybe the Montagues and Capulets will start scrapping again, but for a moment, the BBC Symphony Chorus (augmented, I think) and BBC SO  made the ending totally  convincing.

Original Source: Berlioz Romeo and Juliet – Andrew Davis BBC SO Barbican

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