Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz, BBC Proms, Prom 20, Royal Albert Hall, 30 July 2016.Posted on 31 July 2016
This remarkable choral symphony is a broader and deeper work than the composer’s earlier and oft-played Symphonie fantastique. Based on David Garrick’s mid-eighteenth century version of Shakespeare’s play, which held the stage for some hundred years, its seven parts start with an overview of the heady emotions involved, and end with reconciliation between Montagues and Capulets under the wise tutelage of Friar Lawrence. This bass-baritone role was given a beautifully elegiac quality by Laurent Naouri, whose voice blended with the orchestra and full chorus at the end to extinguish the rancour between the two families.
There is no specific representation of any other character in the play though mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne well expresses the gentle agony of first rapture, and tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, along with part of the chorus, gives a lively account of the night-time commotion engendered by Queen Mab, the dream fairy. Yet aside from the grand choral finale it was the orchestral expression of emotion that made the greatest impression, notably Romeo’s melancholy, the balcony scene, and Juliet’s funeral cortege (in this Garrick version of Shakespeare).
Berlioz was an extraordinarily energetic and inventive composer drawn to the dramatic-revelatory moment, and heedless of the canons of good taste he found himself in impecunious circumstances. Fortunately a generous gift of 20,000 francs by Paganini in December 1838 enabled him to pay off his debts, with money to spare, and complete this symphonic work for its first performance a year later. As a huge admirer of Shakespeare, Berlioz makes a fine choice for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and Glyndebourne are currently performing his opera Béatrice and Bénédict (Much Ado About Nothing).
Under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, both of which he founded, along with the National Youth Choir of Scotland, gave a wonderfully clear account of this remarkable symphony, and the horn playing at the start of the love scene in Part 3 was beautifully serene.