Berlioz’s RomÈo et Juliette — Opera with few words

Extracts from the piece are heard often enough, but hearing the whole work
shows Berlioz’s intentions more clearly. This RomÈo et Juliette is
an orchestra-drama, where the story unfolds in the vivid musical tableaux the
music evokes. Voices are only part of the orchestral palette, used solo or
tutti when needed. to develop orchestral colour. This is a hybrid
form, a semi-opera with arias and no “roles”. Just as Mendelssohn wrote
Lieder ohne Worte, Berlioz wrote semi-operas without words. (Click here
for a review of Dan Albright’s Berlioz’s Semi-Operas.

This RomÈo et Juliette was conceived to be heard on stage, for
much of its impact is visual and theatrical. Hence the large orchestra and
unusual instruments, and the massed choirs on this occasion dressed in
jewel-hued shirts to highlight effect.

Although much is made of the works roots in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,
perhaps it might be even more prescient to hear this RomÈo et
as part of a platform of new ideas about music drama that were
growing in the 1840’s and 50’s. We think of Wagner and Verdi when we think
of opera history, obliterating the altogether different approaches with which
Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann were experimenting. That I think is the real
significance of this piece. It’s an outgrowth from oratorio, but even more
radically it is orchestra-theatre, very different from opera convention in its

Indeed, its connection to stage play is paramount. Berlioz became obsessed
by Harriet Smithson when he watched her perform Shakespeare in Paris. The
picture above is a contemporary print showing Smithson and Charles Kemble in
Romeo and Juliet. In an age before close ups and amplification,
theatre practice could have to have been more stylized than we’re used to
now. Perhaps Berlioz, a music and theatre critic, intuited that good orchestral
writing had the potential to express feelings in greater complexity than most
actors were capable of. Berlioz’s flamboyance often seems to stem from a need
to do bigger and flashier than anyone else. This extravagant emotionalism may
have been what drew Wagner to Berlioz. How different it is from the elegance of
Mozart and the charm of Donizetti! Sadly, just as Romeo and Juliet were doomed,
Berlioz and Harriet were not happy together.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment must have enjoyed themselves, for
each instrume4nt is a player in this piece. Berlioz was fascinated with
instrumentation, and wrote the seminal treatise on orchestration cherished by
Strauss and Mahler, and still useful now. Berlioz included the saxophone, then
newly invented, long before the instrument became associated with jazz. Part of
the fun in RomÈo et Juliette is the way Berlioz highlights small
details. An ophicleide (also a “new” instrument then) lurks among the
trombone, darting out for a surprise attack in the opening “Tumulte” which
depicts Montague/Capulet struggle. The ophicleide is “nastier” than a tuba,
a flick knife as opposed to a scimitar. Berlioz is writing brutish street
fight, expressing much more than words might do.

Many other witty effects like the percussionist standing stage front, so you
can’t miss him, beating two metal bells. An allusion to the bells of the
procession or to the Mass in general? In the “Queen Mab” sequence (the
scherzo in part II), the magical fairy is evoked by delicate flutes and
piccolo. Mendelssohn wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
in 1826, and discussed it with Berlioz when they were in Rome four years
later. Similar luminous delicacy, more refinement here than in the rest of
Berlioz’s sprawling, freewheeling adventure.

Although Patricia Bardon’s French was unintelligible (she was substituting
at short notice), it wasn’t as much of a problem than it might have been.
Juliette only sings for a short time, but her musical signature (plangent
harps) lingers throughout the piece. She’s in a tomb, but not dead, as the
music reminds us. John Mark Ainsley sang the tenor part, but Berlioz placed
much more emphasis on PËre Laurence, who gets the biggest “part” in this
piece when he sings the recitative and aria that implore the Montagus and
Capulets to make peace. The bass Orlin Anastassov was a powerful presence,
using hiss voice to quell the tumult. The part evidently appealed to Berlioz,
or it binds together all the orchestration, solo and tutti, vocal and
instrumental. It’s also grand theatre.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Charles Kemble (1775-1854) and Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) as Romeo and Juliet. Lithograph by FranÁois-Antoine Conscience(1795-1840). [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Hector Berlioz: RomÈo et Juliette
product_by=Patrica Bardon; John Mark Ainsley; Orlin Anatassove. Schola Cantorum Oxford. BBC Symphony Chorus. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Sir Mark Elder. Royal Festival Hall, London, 18th February 2012.
product_id=Above: Charles Kemble (1775-1854) and Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) as Romeo and Juliet. Lithograph by FranÁois-Antoine Conscience(1795-1840). [Source: Wikipedia]