Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette is an odd but beautiful work which does not often get an outing in the concert hall. Neither a symphony nor an oratorio, it calls for an expensively large orchestra, chorus and solo singers. Indeed, Berlioz was only able to afford the time to compose it and to have it mounted in 1839 thanks to a 20,000 franc gift from Paganini – guilt money for having earlier spurned his Harold en Italie.
The work deserves careful planning and rehearsal, and a sensitive performance. Sadly, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia gave none of these. Their main problem seemed to be one of approach – how to respond to Berlioz’ particular interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, which he had first encountered on the stage in 1827 with his one-time muse Harriet Smithson in the role of Juliet. In the ‘dramatic symphony’, as Berlioz termed it, Shakespeare’s play provides a loose programme, and elements of the story are arranged as arias, recitatives, choruses and orchestral movements.
Salonen went for brashness instead of drama in the action sections, and for sentimentality in the love and tragic scenes. All of this made for a distinctly slow and unsteady performance. The strophic aria in the Introduction, which declaims the joys of love, limped along, with mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sounding stodgy and uncertain. Soloist and instrumentalists struggled to keep together, and the orchestra quite audibly missed their entry during tenor Paul Groves’ subsequent scherzetto. Gerald Finley as Friar Laurence in the concluding Finale used his rich baritone voice to good effect, but even he was occasionally drowned out by an over-loud orchestra.
There were moments of delicacy, but, as in the Love Scene, these were over and done with rather too quickly as Salonen pushed on through the score. The Queen Mab scherzo should shimmer and flit weightlessly, but under Salonen’s baton, it sounded bland, and the strings scuttled about too heavily. His rather forced efforts to create ‘atmosphere’ were not helped by the crude lighting design, which had the stage bathed in varying shades of orange and blue, as if to tell the audience what they should be feeling. For fans of Berlioz it was a disappointment, but there will at least be two more chances to hear the work in November, this time from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.