MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette Symphony toute entière


Hector Berlioz didn’t even know English when he saw his first stagings of Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris, performed by a British company on tour. But it didn’t matter. “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt,” he later recalled. “The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths.”

Those reverberations mixed with the young French artist’s discovery of the Beethoven symphonies around the same time. And both epiphanies propelled Berlioz along his adventurous course as a musical revolutionary.

The work that fuses Berlioz’s reimagining of what a symphony could be with his Shakespearean obsession is Roméo et Juliette. Last night the Seattle Symphony performed RnJ in its entirety — to my knowledge, for the first time in their history. Ludovic Morlot led the expansive forces called for by the score: three vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra (in this case splitting the first and second violins to left and right). There’s even a touch of acoustical “space music” in the positioning of a brief double choir offstage.

It’s a mammoth score (all told, around an hour and a half — not counting the intermission that was inserted here after the “Queen Mab Scherzo”). The instrumental sections are played as a kind of abridged suite often enough, but encountering the whole megillah is a rarity that brings home how radical were Berlioz’s ideas about music and its relation to text and drama. The result is that RnJ is more or less an acknowledged masterpiece that contains some of this genius’s finest music, yet, oddly, as a whole the work remains more often talked about than heard.

Following Maestro Morlot’s work with specific composers since his tenure began here has been fascinating — and the Berlioz thread has proved particularly satisfying artistically (La Damnation de Faust in his first season, an electrifying Symphonie fantastique this time last year).

Morlot and his musicians are showering love on Roméo et Juliette. Sorry if that sounds schmaltzy, but there’s really no other way to put it: the breathtaking precision of their dynamic shadings, the intensified expressivity, their Zen-like focus on detail, the awareness of complicated, even contradictory emotions in this score.

Berlioz carries further the idea from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth of the instruments trying to break out into words by doing the opposite: after an orchestral introduction — the discipline of fugal writing paradoxically depicts violent disorder and passion — he stages an overall summing up of the play’s main action in a prologue “act” that features chorus and two soloists positioned behind the strings. (Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo contributed her velvety mezzo and tenor Kenneth Tarver sang with elegant fervor.)

But already you sense the instruments straining to take over the telling, with solemn, commanding rebukes from trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto and the brass ensemble standing in for the Prince of Verona. And Berlioz reserves the most sublime passages for his orchestra, above all in the scene of Romeo alone and the nocturne of the young lovers meeting in the garden of the Capulet residence, beneath Juliet’s balcony. The woodwinds played with soulful poignance, with admirably individualized phrasing from Mary Lynch on oboe and clarinetist Ben Lulich; bassoonist Seth Krimsky sustained a mood of deep, anxious melancholy later in the Tomb Scene.

(The playing was so precise and riveting that I encountered a novel torture to add to the usual litany of cell phones, coughers, page-turners, seat kickers, and other occupational hazards of the concert hall: the penetrating sound that a pair of leather shoes squeaking against each other can generate, as a patron helpfully demonstrated during one of the score’s most heartbreaking moments.)

Morlot tenderly shaped the ebb and flow of the scène d’amour, with its sudden pullings-back and renewed outbursts of pained passion. Richard Wagner (Berlioz’s junior by a decade) was there at the historic premiere of this “symphonie dramatique” in Paris in 1839, and it was an epiphany for Little Richard as well.

It’s enlightening to compare/contrast the passionate melody of this music with its transmogrification in Tristan: the Classical transparency of Berlioz’s sensibility survives his most radical harmonic ideas, so that the French composer’s love music still betrays a moving awareness of limits and fragility that is a far reach from the oceanic transports Wagner permits his lovers to experience.

The players’ crisp focus on detail paid off richly, too, in the gorgeously nimble, ear-tickling “Queen Mab Scherzo” — Berlioz’s rendition, purely through the means of orchestral language, of Mercutio’s ingenious speech about the “fairies’ midwife.” Jeff Fair’s horn solo was outstanding, and Michael Werner’s light-as-a-feather pings on hand-held crotales echoed dreamily against infinitesimally delicate pizzicati. The rehearsals must have been incredibly focused, resulting in a lightning speed tempo and crystal-clear textures that throw the sheer weirdness of this music in high relief.

It should be noted that the text set by Berlioz — no mean wordsmith himself — originated in his own paraphrasing and rewriting, only loosely based on Shakespeare’s original; he had the poet Émile Deschamps craft this into a libretto, thus avoiding direct “competition” with Shakespeare’s verse. The “words” and actions of the lovers themselves are reserved strictly for the orchestra to impart.

Another highlight was Juliet’s Funeral March and the Tomb Scene (in the third part or “act,” which was performed after the intermission). A smaller subset of Joseph Crnko’s Seattle Symphony Chorale had appeared for the narrative of the Prologue. Here they came out in full force and sang with clarity and power. The restraint of their single repeated unison E gave way to emotion-laden elegy, its resplendent polyphony expertly balanced.

Arguably the lengthy finale is the weak link in Berlioz’s conception of this symphony-opera-oratorio hybrid. All the pain, longing, and ecstasy — and violence — that lead to the denouement feel swept aside in a superficially rousing reconciliation, the most overtly operatic scena of the work. Here Berlioz gravitates more obviously back toward the Beethovenian Ninth model of a choral finale. Baritone David Wilson-Johnson — filling in at the last minute — delivered the significant part of the peace-maker Friar Laurence with flair and charisma.

But Berlioz knew that “the very sublimity of this love” is beyond words, though not beyond expression. To access this he focuses in Roméo et Juliette on, as he described it, “the language of instruments, a language richer, more varied, less restricted, and thanks to its very indefiniteness, incomparably more potent.”

There’s one more chance to hear this performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette: Saturday 14 February 2015 at 8 pm at Benaroya Hall. Tickets here.

UPDATE: I asked SSO staff about an odd commotion that took place just as concertmaster Alexander Velinzon came out. A man started shouting something in an agitated voice (I couldn’t make out what he was saying) and walked up the aisle holding a pen and pointing it at one of the ushers. Apparently police were notified and came to Benaroya Hall after the gentleman had exited the hall. I’m told there were no other problems and that he was given a refund for the ticket he had purchased.

On Twitter, Terry Miller wondered whether the disturbance was from the Montague or Capulet side.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony


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