Hector Berlioz’s treatment of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy in Roméo et Juliette, his “dramatic symphony” premiered in 1839, stands apart for its radical approach to narrative and musical story-telling.
It transforms the (still very recent, still-being-digested) Beethovenian legacy of the choral Ninth Symphony into something even less conventional in how it negotiates the relation between words and instruments, text and “programmatic” music. Not the least unusual choice is the oblique way of recounting the famous story using not Shakespeare’s words but instead a libretto by Emile Deschamps that actually eliminates the figures of Romeo and Juliet themselves. They’re only spoken of in the text, whereas their big scenes are depicted by the orchestra alone.
So I was especially intrigued to see what Berlin-based choreographer (and aptonym!) Sasha Waltz does with one of my all-time favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera in 2007 but was introduced only this year to the Deutsche Oper’s rep.
I caught a recent performance, with the title roles danced by Joel Suárez Gómez and Lorena Justribó Manion, respectively, and with Moritz Gnann conducting. It was a marvelous late-summer evening and suggested some new ways of thinking about Berlioz, even if not all of Waltz’s specific choices were effective. (It also made for a wonderful supplement to the complete performance by the Seattle Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot which I reviewed this past February.)
By adding back in the stuff Berlioz leaves out, or allows only as third-person narration — most notably, Romeo and Juliet — a staged and danced version seems to court the danger of “pushing” Berlioz’s music into the background, making it mere accompaniment to the narrative that unfolds with great visual allure. (The problematic bias of ballet music as “secondary” has much in common with the bias against film scores — another story.)
But rather than distracting from or eclipsing Berlioz’s music, the gestural vocabulary Waltz develops actually amplified aspects of the score for me. Most memorably, we can observe Juliet’s perspective, and one of Waltz’s most significant additions is to suggest the story of Juliet’s promise of liberation from the person she’s been moulded into by her family and situation. This comes to the fore in the most sublime music of the symphony, the lengthy Scène d’amour. To actually see the process of mutual discovery of Romeo and Juliet “happening” to this music gave me another layer to think about that intensified the inwardness of Berlioz’s music.
By the same token, the tone poem-like instrumental music in Part III (Roméo au tombeau des Capulets, etc.) now had its visual analogue. It moved me even more than productions of the Shakespeare source have done in the same scene — whereas I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case had this been a full-on operatic treatment, with text and singing to bring home each new phase of the story line.
Something about this “in-betweenness” — of Berlioz’s carefully scored gestural music matched with the pantomime and choreography — also managed to evade the literalness of mere recounting that was key to the composer’s motivation in opting for purely instrumental music for the loftiest and most tragic moments.