Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette in Cardiff

Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette: Susan Bickley (mezzo), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor), Jonathan Lemalu
(bass-baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, BBC  National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall,  Cardiff 15.4.2011 (GPu)

Berlioz is a master of the hybrid, generically speaking. The list of his works contains little or nothing that might be regarded, in any very straightforward fashion, as a symphony, a concerto or a sonata. Not for him the ‘mechanical’ classical forms; his forms are (to borrow Coleridge’s famous distinction), ‘organic’ or ‘vital’. And where better to learn the principles of such a way of working than the plays of Shakespeare? These were plays which offended and transgressed almost all the tenets of French classicism (a transgression which underlies almost all of Voltaire’s derogatory comments on Shakespeare), cross-breeds of comedy and tragedy which could hardly seem other than “barbarian” to refined French orthodoxy in such matters. For Berlioz the lesson was clear, and liberating – why should any musical work adhere to the ‘rules’ of a single musical genre? Roméo et Juliette is, aptly enough, the perfect example of such a creative subversion of genre – fusing, as it does, elements (and principles) of the symphony, the tone-poem, the opera, the oratorio and more. The result is a work which remains startling (it certainly startled its early audiences), which packs an enormous punch but which has its areas of relative weakness – not, surely surprising and far from unforgivable, in a work so boldly conceived and executed.

Thierry Fischer conducted a performance full of passion and commitment. Like the work itself it had some moments where the tension dissipated and momentum slackened, but these did not seriously detract from a powerful evening of musical experience. The stand-out performance was Jonathan Lemalu’s Friar Laurence, a performance of commanding authority, vocally radiant and textually alert. But the briefer solo contributions of Susan Bickley and the agile tenor of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt were also pleasing. The lavishness with which Berlioz deploys his forces in Roméo et Juliette inevitably set a conductor real problems of balance, and these weren’t always resolved entirely happily. Integration of the choral voices into the overall soundscape proved – not for the first time in this work – to be difficult, though this is not intended as any criticism of the choirs themselves, rather an observation on the nature of the wor

The hectic fugue of the opening captured the initial pettiness of the family feud (conducted via servants in Shakespeare’s play, after all) and the prince’s intervention brought some splendidly assertive playing from the trombones. Susan Bickley’s singing of ‘Heureux enfants aux coeurs de flame!’ was very sensitively complemented by the work of the cellos and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s reading of ‘Mab, la messagère’ had a delightful quality of seeming spontaneity. In Part 2 the opening sections featured top-class work by the strings and the woodwind section and the Grand Ball of the Capulets was played with a gusto that still found room for precision, the result being the most perfect kind of ‘vulgarity’, standing in perfect contrast to the youthful innocence of Romeo and Juliet. The opening of part 3, with its off-stage choir, was a perfect contrast to the music of the ball, its nocturnal nostalgia beautifully wistful. The famous love-scene was very mildly disappointing. There was nothing to fault in the playing of strings or woodwinds in the lovers’ dialogue, but the final magic was missing. The delightful Mab Scherzo which followed, however, was as fancifully gorgeous as one might wish, full justice done to the lovely details for horns, harps and bassoons. In Part 5 Juliet’s Funeral Cortège was musically attended by a chorus which, in the hall at least, was difficult to hear – but will perhaps be more successfully balanced in the BBC’s recording of the concert. The purely instrumental Part 6 contains some of Berlioz’s most characteristically Romantic music, here it was played in exhilarating fashion, dynamic contrasts excellently pointed, robustness alternating with tenderness, ecstasy with despair. The grand climax of Part 7 was, as mentioned earlier, graced by a magnificent performance by Jonathan Lemalu, richly expressive, gravid with emotion and moral sense alike, and the choral voices were heard at their very best in Berlioz’s spine-tingling climax, so much more affirmative than the close of Shakespeare’s original play.

There can, I suspect, be no such thing as the perfect performance of Roméo et Juliette. A work so ambitious, so mixed in its purposes and effects, so prodigal in its use of soloists, choirs and orchestra, almost transcends the possibility of successful incarnation on the concert platform. A famous essay by Charles Lamb made a memorable assertion: “It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage, than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. Here, surely is another affinity between Berlioz and the English dramatist, the first encounter with whom Berlioz described thus: “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art … I recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth, and I could measure the utter absurdity of the French view of Shakespeare … and the pitiful narrowness of our own worn-out academic, cloistered traditions of poetry. I saw, I understood, I felt … that I was alive and that I must arise and walk” (quoted from David Cairns’ translation of the Memoirs). That sense of liberated awe is audible in almost every bar of Roméo et Juliette and much of it was communicated in this performance.

Glyn Pursglove