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Berlioz’s Take on Shakespeare Done Well by Dutoit


Bernarda Fink, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, John-Oliver, Charles-Dutoit, Laurent Naouri (Stu-Rosner)

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.




7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Maestro Dutoit did not, in fact, replace Maestro Levine, who was always scheduled to conduct two performances of “Die Walkuere” in New York this week, including one on 5/5. Even he didn’t agree to be in two different cities at the same exact time.

    Comment by Ken — May 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm

  2. I agree with Steven Ledbetter in all respects of his review of this remarkable and fitting close to the BSO season except with what appears to be a tacit acceptance of the performance of Laurent Naouri as Friar Laurence. The sense of anticlimax the reviewer feels in this final passage might well have been exacerbated by Naouri’s underpowered delivery. The good Friar enters through the gates of the cemetery and into our consciousness, in Berlioz’s words, only after nearly two hours of “a compelling liveliness, an ordered passion, a dreamlike sensitivity, a passionate mode of expression, internal fire, rhythmic impetus and the unexpected” have swirled dizzily around us and seeped, exhaustively and deep, into our bones. A powerful and authoritative presence is needed to grip firm the wrist of this seething crowd, stanch the bloody flow of continued violence, and placate the grief that centuries of inter-family emnity have brought to this moment. Whoever this man is must, when years have failed, tell Montagus and Capulets in just fifteen minutes to (1) quit your fury, (2) still your hate, and (3) unite in love. Naouri’s voice lacked the gravitas to hold up his end of Berlioz’s long journey of love and despair, and to suggest that the frocked and cowled figure, hands brought back down at his sides, had truly moved the still hoarse and becalmed crowd to look wetly into each others’ eyes: “Amis, amis, pour toujours!”

    Comment by Henry Hoover — May 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  3. I had the pleasure of performing with the Harvard Radcliffe chorus in the 1953 performance of R&J and the recording. I also was lucky enough to hear the 1958 and the 1967 performances. Although the performance on Friday afternoon was elegant and beautiful, the Munch performances will forever be etched in my mind. Munch had the passion, the energy and excitement in every performance I heard, which Dutoit could not match. You never knew how the performance with Le Beau would go. But some items were constant: Charles Munch’s ball fete was always rough and raucous, as befitting the occasion; the Queen Mab was whispy and delicate, often at a breathtaking speed; and the final scene with Friar Lawrence was terrifying, bringing out the hostility between the Montagues and Capulets, ending with a resolution that took your breath away. But these ears were pleased to hear a disciple of Munch (through the summer program at Tanglewood) give it a try. But how can you compete with a memory and first love!

    Comment by Robert — May 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm

  4. Yes, it was very pleasant concert. The BSO was wonderful, the chorus was typically great: probably all together it the most exiting concert of the entire season.

    One thing I would like to not. I was not there and was listening over FM. As usually Ron Della Chiesa was trying to fill the gaps between the sections. Usually he does it fine but this time it did bother me. I am sure it is important to know that that it was WCRB station and that last time the six chair from second violin section were wearing white socks was back in 1936 but it was a bit overly intrusive. Ron does great job to expressive with his voice the “involvement” but I think his voice needs to be mixed differently in case he infringe the texture of performance. Perhaps it needs to be much softer of much more ambianic. I do not know. I do know that how it was done it was a bit disruptive….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm

  5. I’m surprised at Henry Hoover’s opinion of Laurent Naouri’s performance of the role of Friar Laurence. At the Thursday performance, which I attended, I thought he was definitely a commanding presence in his part. The power of his voice and the forcefulness of his declamation gave me the feeling that here was indeed someone who could lay down the law to the feuding families. But then, I’m unfamiliar with other performers in the role, as this is not a work to which I have paid any real attention. So I have no point of comparison by which to gauge Mr. Naouri, just his performance alone.

    This is probably an instance of “De gustibus non disputandum,” or, better, “Quot homines, tot sententiæ.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 9, 2011 at 10:28 am

  6. I also enjoyed Naouri’s performance.

    Quiet apart from the concert itself, it’s worth noting that Dutoit brought a great enthusiasm even to the post-concert celebration. At one point on Thursday he returned to the stage hugging John Oliver, a bit gimpy as he recovers from a leg injury, and pretended to limp along with him. What a card! Then Dutoit and the three soloists stayed on stage near the entrance to join in the celebration of Frank Epstein’s retirement, all clearly enjoying themselves immensely. It felt like the turmoil of the season had been put to rest.

    Comment by Bill McLaughlin — May 9, 2011 at 10:47 am

  7. Glad that many enjoyed the concert. We enjoyed singing it.

    Thought I’d throw in a comment regarding Ron Della Chiesa’s commentary. I haven’t heard specifically what he said or how the audio was mixed, but I know that the radio broadcast producers in general were keenly interested in how long they had to fill while the chorus filed on stage between parts 2 and 3. We got the timing down to about 2-1/2 minutes to file 120+ choristers in 6 rows (doing two rows at a time, using both stage doors), but that’s 2-1/2 minutes of dead air time, so they certainly had to come up with SOMETHING besides shuffling noises and people coughing. I think the texture of the performance is somewhat interrupted even if you’re in attendance.

    Between that interruption, plus the prologue chorus leaving in the middle of part 1, and the cramped men crowding around video monitors as the backstage reveling Capulets in part 2… well, as I think John Oliver remarked to us during a rehearsal, Berlioz did not so much care about the practicality of his musical performances!

    Comment by Jeff Foley — May 11, 2011 at 8:55 am

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