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

Poliuto, Glyndebourne

Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Pacific Opera Project Presents Ariadne auf Naxos

Pacific Opera Project, a small Los Angeles company, presented a production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Ebell Club with an excellent group of young singers at the beginning of what should be good careers.

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

The Singers Sparkle in New York Opera Exchange’s Carmen

New York Opera Exchange’s production of Carmen from May 8th to 10th highlighted that which opera devotees have been saying for years: Opera, far from being dead, is vibrant and evolving.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

Manitoba Opera: Turandot

There’s little doubt that Puccini’s Turandot is a flawed, illogical fairytale. Yet it continues to resonate today with its undying “love shall conquer all” ethos, where even the most heinous crimes may be forgiven by that which makes the world go ‘round.

Mariachi Opera El Pasado Nunca se Termina Comes to San Diego

On April 25, 2015, San Diego Opera presented it’s second Mariachi opera: El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, Leonard Foglia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House Orchestral Concerts

Ambition achieved! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right.

Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek’s annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continued with Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor.

Orlando Explores Art Without Boundaries

R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel’s Orlando asks the enigmatic question: Where do the boundaries of performance art begin, and where do they end?

The Virtues of Things

A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores.

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera Celebrates 50 Years of Great Singing

San Diego Opera, the company that General Manager Ian Campbell had scheduled for demolition, proved that it is alive and singing as beautifully as ever. Its 2015 season was cut back slightly and management has become a bit leaner, but the company celebrated its fiftieth season in fine style with a concert that included many of the greatest arias ever written.

Hercules vs Vampires: Film Becomes Opera!

In the early sixties, Italian film director Mario Bava was making pictures with male body builders whose well oiled physiques appeared spectacular on the screen.

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)

An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.

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):