Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Charles Kemble (1775-1854) and Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) as Romeo and Juliet. Lithograph by François-Antoine Conscience(1795-1840). [Source: Wikipedia]
20 Feb 2012

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette — Opera with few words

Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette to the Royal Festrival Hall.

Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette

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.

Above: Charles Kemble (1775-1854) and Harriet Smithson (1800-1854) as Romeo and Juliet. Lithograph by François-Antoine Conscience(1795-1840). [Source: Wikipedia]

 

Extracts from the piece are heard often enough, but hearing the whole work shows Berlioz’s intentions more clearly. This Roméo 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 Roméo 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 Roméo et Juliette 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 time.

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 Roméo 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 Père 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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):