Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 23: Berlioz – Roméo et Juliette @ Royal Albert Hall, London

31 July 2005

Berlioz remains one of the most unjustly neglected of composers of all time,which is extraordinary considering his contribution to the development ofmusic in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps one of the reasons is his refusalto stick to the standard dimensions of many genres. For instance, his operaLes troyens is in two huge parts, a very long and expensive work tostage, so much so that it was never put on complete in Berlioz’s lifetime.

His concerto Harold en Italie lacks the traditional virtuosictrappings of the form, and Paganini, who commissioned the piece, refused toplay it when he received the score (later coming to admire it, however). Andhis version of the Romeo and Juliet story is neither an opera nor astraightforward orchestral work, but instead a dramatic symphony in sevenmovements.

It builds on the format of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with large choralforces, three vocal soloists and large orchestra, and the length (100minutes without an interval) and expense of the undertaking are surely theonly reasons for its neglect in the concert hall, for it is one of Berlioz’sbest works. The narrative style is most unusual.

The first movement tells ofthe warring Montagues and Capulets, with the mezzo-soprano and tenorsoloists and semi-chorus relating the story in the third person. The secondmovement is purely orchestral, describing the Capulet ball, and the thirdinvolves the love scene interspersed with the revellers returning from theball (the chorus was evocatively positioned in the gallery for thissection). The symphony’s most familiar excerpt is the Queen Mab scherzo, andthe fifth and sixth movements describe the death of the lovers.

The finale moves to a first person narrative, with the bass soloist playingFriar Laurence and the chorus split into two halves, representing the rivalfamilies. It was here that this Proms performance with the BBC Scottish SOunder Ilan Volkov became really special, although the rest was also verysatisfying. John Relyea played Laurence with gravitas, a face to watch as hereturns to London to play Banquo and Méphistophélés at Covent Garden nextyear. In Berlioz’s version of the story, the Friar and not the Prince bringsthe sparring households together in a huge contrapuntal movement, hereplayed with an operatic excitement worthy of the finale of Beethoven’sFidelio.

Katarina Karnéus was outstanding as the mezzo soloist in the first movement,and one’s only regret was that Berlioz made the part so small. Since winningthe Cardiff Singer of the World in 1995, Karnéus has become famous for thebeauty of her voice and the intelligence of her execution, both aspectsapparent in this performance. She was audible when singing in unison withthe chorus and radiant in her big solos.

Less brilliant though by no means awful was Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as thetenor soloist. He is a baroque specialist and seemed overwhelmed by thepower of Berlioz’s massive orchestra.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was in sparkling form under its ChiefConductor, Ilan Volkov. This young conductor was inspirational and neverdistracting, directing firmly but not enforcing his ego onto the musicians.The London Symphony Chorus was occasionally unfocussed in the earliermovements, but gave vitality to the finale. This was a dedicated performancefrom all sides, and an example of how the Proms are so unbeatable for theirwide range of unusual repertoire.

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