BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette / Les Troyens a Carthage (Frank Almond/ San Diego Master Chorale/ San Diego Symphony Orchestra/ Victor and Marina Ledin/ Yoav Talmi) (Naxos: 8.553195)
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BERLIOZ (1803 - 1869)
Romeo and Juliet
The Trojans at Carthage: Prelude & Royal Hunt and Storm
At his best, Berlioz illuminated virtually every element of the Romantic Century: its national pulse and revolutionary ardour; the power of literature and its transformation in music and program; industry , invention, new instruments and sounds of every sort; vivid colour and bold harmonic design tinged with melancholy; and, above all, a sense of the obligations of Genius.
In his opera Les Troyens and symphonic poem Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz demonstrates an astonishing mastery of episode, expression, and impulse. Each is a dramatic realisation of a familiar tale, drawn from Berlioz' powerful grasp of the meta-human personalities within, and each is coloured by the hand of one of the great innovators of orchestration.
Across his career, in overture, song, symphony, and opera, Berlioz was inspired by literary themes and models. Although impelled by Shakespeare, his Romeo and Juliet was in fact made possible by the violinist Nicolà Paganini.
Recounts Berlioz in his Memoirs: \I hit upon the idea of a symphony with choruses, vocal solos, and choral recitatives on the sublime and ever-novel theme of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. I wrote in prose all the text intended for the vocal pieces which come between the instrumental sections. Emile Deschamps, with his usual delightful good nature and marvellous facility, set it to verse... Paganini had given me money that I might write music, and write it I did."
It was composed from 20th January to 8th September, 1839, and given three try-outs at the Paris Conservatoire, these on 24th November, 1st and 15th December. Romeo and Juliet at first met bad reviews. One critic described it as "an ill-greased syringe." Berlioz in turn praised the critic as a "toad, swollen with imbecility." Even so, the composer privately acknowledged that "I should have to improve it a great deal." After performances in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, numerous revisions were made.
It is a difficult score and Berlioz as a conductor recognised this from the first: "To interpret it properly, the artists - conductor, singers, and orchestra - must all be first-rate, and prepared to study it as a new opera is studied in good lyrical theatres... very nearly as though it were to be played by heart. It will, therefore, never be played in London, where the necessary rehearsals are not to be had. In that country, musicians have no time to make music."
Described variously as a choral symphony, symphonic poem, and 'symphonie dramatique', Romeo and Juliet is in seven parts: Introduction; Capulet's House; Balcony Scene; Queen Mab; Funeral Procession; Tomb Scene; and, Finale. Remarkably, the four 'traditional' movements of the nineteenth century symphony are embedded in its Andante malincolico -Allegro, Adagio, Scherzo prestissimo and Allegro agitato sections. In the remaining first, fifth, and seventh movements Berlioz employs solo voices (alto, tenor and bass) and six- part chorus.
Shakespeare's story concerns the Capulets and Montagues, two rival households in fourteenth century Verona. Its romance is that of Juliet for the son of her family's enemy. Forbidden to love openly, the teenagers are married in secret by their confessor, Friar Laurence. Drawn into a street quarrel, Romeo ultimately kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt. Banished from Verona, Romeo arranges a final night with Juliet and thereafter leaves the city. Friar Laurencecontrives with Juliet her feigned death and an ultimate reconciliation between Montague and Capulet. Unaware, Romeo returns to find her motionless in the family tomb. Tragedy follows a ghastly error in presuming her dead, his suicide by poison, and hers by dagger upon awakening to Romeo's dying embrace.
Berlioz' Romeo and Juliet owes its dramatic structure as much to English actor David Garrick (1717-1779) as to Shakespeare. The tomb scene, funeral march, and double chorus oath of reconciliation were adopted from the stage tradition of Garrick, who in turn simply made them up. They appear nowhere in the Folio.
For this recording, Yoav Talmi has chosen six excerpts. The orchestra makes an Introduction, violas naming the dark frantic energy of the town, weighted by grim descending low brass. The chorus enters in Prologue, ending a family celebration and foretelling catastrophe. Berlioz conjures the adolescent charm and over-reacting anguish of Romeo's soul, most naïvely in the solo oboe. The Scène d'amour follows, and here the chorus briefly quotes popular tunes heard at the Capulet celebrations.
Through the fantastic dance and sarcasm of La reine Mab we hear Berlioz' voice at its strongest. Queen Mab descended from Celtic myth. 'Medb' to the Irish and 'Maben' to the Welsh, this character was a deliverer of dreams, equally adroit in mischief and reverie, midwife to the faeries. How does Berlioz' Queen Mab enchant the dreamer? Listen to her rapid mood swings and irregular rhythms, the darting voices, the sudden episodes of alarm and energy. Woodwinds and strings serve Mab's rough humour. Orchestral texture remains light until a strange call in the English horn, luring the dreamer headlong into Mab's empire of insensibility. Rapid fugal replies in the strings change the mood again, and the surprising cry of a French horn alters the spell once more. Timpani and bass drum rumble and, after an unprepared loud climax, the mood veers into a clearing of violas and a brief allusion to its only rival in this strange field, Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. After an odd, stumbling hesitation, the last of Mab's jokes is told: her spell ends with a harmonic progression which, after all, plays by the rules of the waking world.
In his last and most moving scene, Roméo au tombeau, Berlioz adds to the pain of Romeo our pain in witness of his terrible misjudgment. From a desperate searching in the strings to the choral harmonies of horns and woodwinds in procession, in a return of Romeo's solitary oboe and the lonely waltz which follows, and finally in muted colour and Juliet's own call in the solo clarinet, this work is an astounding feat of musical incarnation.
So too, in very different ways, is his opera Les Troyens. Berlioz in February of 1853 visited Liszt at Weimar, renewing personal and artistic friendship. (Each composer dedicated his Faust to the other.) He discussed an opera on Shakespearean models using the text of Virgil's Aeneid. "For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of writing a vast opera, of which I should write both words and music... I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end." Four years later, The Trojans was completed and ready for production.
And what a production it was. Berlioz' memoirs are riddled with contempt for the bureaucrats who demanded cuts, rewrites, and simply risible alterations. In a letter to the Emperor dated 28th March, 1858, Berlioz begged protection from two conductors "who are my enemies".
It was finally produced at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris on 4th November, 1863. "The performance was a flawed one, as it could hardly fail to be... it was absurd in some parts and ridiculous in others," wrote Berlioz. Its enormous length, huge orchestra and corps de ballet, tremendous staging and scenery requirements, and chaos among the producers led to fiasco. After opening night, ten more cuts were made.