Was Berlioz simply being disingenuous when he wrote, as a preface to the piano-vocal score of Romeo and Juliet, “There will doubtless be no mistake about the genre of this work”? (The “doubtless” is particularly canny.) He expects his audience to be drawn into agreement that his Romeo and Juliet, a full-length work calling for large orchestra, three vocal soloists, and a substantial chorus, is “neither a concert opera nor a cantata, but a symphony with choruses.”
Of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony called for similar forces (and four vocal soloists), but the text that it set was an ode, not something that seemed, on the face of it, to be a version of a play by Shakespeare. “Dramatic Symphony” was the actual term Berlioz used on the score — but how is that different from an opera in concert?
Audiences today — especially English-speaking audiences — are not likely to give much thought to the fact that in the 1830s, Shakespeare was a novel experience to French theatergoers. His tragedies, which spanned far-flung locales, considerable stretches of time, and light-hearted, even comic, scenes in the middle of violence and horror, were about as far from the tragedies in French classical drama (always controlled by the unities of time, place, and action) as it was possible to get. Berlioz, that red-headed wild man of early Romantic music, certainly recognized how new Shakespeare was for French art, and he clearly chose to make his version of a Shakespearean tragedy equally novel. He had a quite specific idea of what he intended. It might have surprised an audience that entered a concert hall to be confronted with the orchestra and a large chorus, to say nothing of the three soloists, but it was, for Berlioz, truly “Shakespearean.”
This week the Boston Symphony Orchestra closes its season with Berlioz’s full-length score, conducted by Charles Dutoit (replacing James Levine), in a manner that emphasizes the composer’s view. (I attended the performance on Thursday, May 5.) The chorus remains offstage except for the movements in which it actually sings; in practice, this means the very beginning and the very end (there is one male chorus sung by the men offstage in the middle). Thus it is the orchestra that is the prime focus of the truly dramatic music in the score — dramatic in the sense that it carries and projects the sense of the drama (wordlessly) and especially the emotional progress of the two lovers, as well as the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, the lively ball at the Capulets, Mercutio’s lively taunting of the enamored Romeo in his “Queen Mab” speech, and the deaths of the two lovers. These movements comprise the real “symphony” of Romeo and Juliet. It was this orchestral music that gripped and astonished the young Richard Wagner when he attended one of the first performances that Berlioz conducted in1839; the movement that Berlioz called “Roméo seul” (Romeo alone) in particular convinced him that orchestral music alone could depict the changing emotional moods of a dramatic character, profoundly shaping his approach to some of his greatest achievements.
The vocal participants, both soloists and chorus, serve on the one hand, an explanatory purpose, setting the scene at the beginning with narration, and, on the other, for a somewhat theatrical close as Friar Laurence explains the situation to the astonished families and persuades them to put aside their long-standing feud. And Berlioz actually added some of this for a later revival, in which he “salted” the opening scene’s choral recitative with thematic gestures that would recur in the orchestral parts, just further tightening the symphonic element.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been one of the major proponents of French music in the United States since Pierre Monteux became music director, shortly after World War I, and its ability to ring every change on Berlioz’s colorful score was carried forth during the music directorships of Munch and Ozawa, both of whom recorded it. Charles Dutoit has this music in his very bones, and he led a vigorous, shapely, and elegant reading, with great drive in the “feud” music (which began the evening so lickety-split that one feared it might actually fall apart, though it did not), and tender expression in the nocturnal love scenes. The delicious Queen Mab scherzo was feather-light but crisp and clean.
The mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, making her debut, sustained the narrative section of the opening scene with clear diction and sweet tone, her recitative elegantly accompanied by Jessica Zhou’s harp, chosen by Berlioz as a stand-in for the harpsichord or fortepiano used in earlier operatic recitatives. Berlioz did not give the tenor soloist — here Jean-Paul Fouchécourt — much to do: a single lively brief recitative and aria anticipating the Queen Mab scherzo. But his light tenor and excellent diction captured the spirit of Mercutio’s raillery.
The baritone Laurent Naouri does not appear until the finale, but there he has a much larger, more “operatic” role as Berlioz builds to a grandiose conclusion. I personally find this music somewhat anticlimactic after the delicate and varied expressions of the lovers’ passions, but it is hard to deny a composer who wants to end a nearly two-hour score with a bang. Friar Laurence and the always brilliant Tanglewood Festival Chorus build the scene from marveling at Romeo’s appearance in Juliet’s tomb and learning of their secret marriage to lamenting the deaths and finally being aroused to end the ancestral family hatred that brought about the tragedy.
Dutoit chose to perform Romeo and Juliet without intermission (the first time this has been done in a BSO performance), which makes for a rather long sit, but keeps the musical and dramatic flow moving forward in glorious harmony, color, and rhythm.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.