Arts & Events

Berlioz’s ROMEO AND JULIET Closes the Symphony Season

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday July 07, 2017 - 01:07:00 PM

The 2016-17 San Francisco Symphony season came to a rousing close with four performances, June 28-July 1, of Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. This 1839 work by Berlioz is hard to categorize. The composer called it “a choral symphony,” and that’s about as good a description as one can get, for Roméo et Juliette is not an opera, though there’s much here that is operatic. Nor is it an oratorio, though it has some similarities to an oratorio. What is quite different about Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is the fact that it has a fairly detailed narrative recounting, in symphonic and choral terms, the well-known plot of Shakespeare’s famous play of the same title. In addition to a large chorus, Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet has three vocal soloists. However, these soloists do not, for the most part, sing character roles. Two of the three soloists simply join with the chorus in narrating the actions and, more importantly, the feelings the characters have at any given moment. Only at the end of the work does a soloist appear who sings a character role, and that character is Friar Laurence.  

Another way in which Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is unique is that the composer chose to express the love between Romeo and Juliet in the orchestra and not in the singers. Berlioz wrote that he had to avoid the sung word and instead give his imagination latitude by writing love music for the instrumental language of the orchestra, “which is richer, more varied, less precise, and by its very indefiniteness incomparably more powerful in such a case.”  

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding; and Berlioz’s love music is indeed quite powerful. The only question is when do we hear the love music? Snatches of it are heard at various times throughout this 1 hour and 35 minute work. There are hints of the love music in the balcony scene, but, surprisingly, very few. When we finally get to hear the full elaboration of the love music it comes at a moment that doesn’t seem to fit in with the narrative, for Romeo is seemingly not yet in the Tomb of the Capulets where Juliet lies in a potion-induced sleep that makes her appear dead. Romeo, disconsolate at the news that Juliet is dead, seemingly allows their love to ring forth in his mind, even indulging in an imagined dialogue between the lovers, with Romeo represented by the violas and cellos in unison, and Juliet by the oboes, flutes and clarinets. I repeat, however, that this lush love music is a disembodied love that finds expression only in Romeo’s mind. 

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, and the soloists were mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. Ragnar Bohlen led the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The work opens with symphonic music evoking the feud between the Montagues and Capulets as they engage in a push-and-shove street scuffle. The Prince intervenes, expressed by the brass, and issues a warning that the families must put an end to their feud. A choral recitative ensues which offers the first hint of the love music, as Sasha Cooke narrates that the Montague’s Romeo is in love with the Capulet’s Juliet. Sasha Cooke, placed behind the orchestra at far left, nonetheless made her voice elegantly heard in this recitative. When the balcony scene occurs, it is narrated here by Sasha Cooke accompanied only by a harp. The joy of the young lovers is celebrated by Sasha Cooke again accompanied by a harp with violas, cellos and basses. The first of two Queen Mab scherzos – why are there two? – was narrated by tenor Nicholas Phan singing of the fairy queen who plays tricks on people’s minds. Then a semi-chorus announces the presumed death of Juliet. Romeo’s distress on hearing this news is expressed in poignant music in the violins and a plaintive oboe solo by Eugene Izotov. A male chorus then incongruously sings gay reminiscences of a ball. Then comes a lengthy orchestral Adagio that seems to go on forever. What it was supposed to be expressing was not clear until it finally rang forth in a full elaboration of the love music as conjured up in Romeo’s mind. This was immediately followed by the second Queen Mab scherzo. Is its position coming just after the love music meant to suggest that the fairy queen has somehow messed with Romeo’s mind? Then a chorus of Capulets sings of Juliet’s funeral cortege. Suddenly, we switch to inside the Tomb of the Capulets, where Romeo has gone in search of Juliet. Agitated music suggests the perfervid emotions as Romeo thinks Juliet is indeed dead and drinks a deadly draught. However, when Juliet awakens from her potion-induced sleep, the lovers’ joy is briefly heard in the orchestra, which soon gives way, however, to despair as Romeo lies dying and Juliet fatally stabs herself with Romeo’s sword.  

Montagues and Capulets burst into the tomb and are aghast to find both Romeo and Juliet dead. They vow vengeance on one another. Friar Laurence, sung here by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, enters and declares that he has secretly married Romeo and Juliet. He begs the feuding families to renounce vengeance, which they eventually do, as Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet comes to a rousing close.