> Opera and Oratorio
Roméo et Juliette
Losier; Boden, Soar; BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, Davis, French text and English translation. Chandos CHSA 5169 (2)
A PAIR OF RECENT recordings of Hector Berlioz’s superb symphonic poem Roméo et Juliette reveal different strengths from two well regarded radio choirs. Andrew Davis employs a lush, romantic approach with the BBC Symphony and Chorus, while Robin Ticciati coaxes a vibrant but drier sound from the Swedish Radio Symphony and Choir. Hugh Macdonald’s program notes accompany both sets.
Inspired by writing a negative review of Bellini’s relatively new Capuleti e i Montecchi, Berlioz outlined a possible symphonic setting of the play’s scenes that interested him most. Dramatic moments such as the sword-fight, the love scene and Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech made the list, but it was the lovers’ tragic end and the final coming together of the rival families that really captured his imagination. The composer had seen Shakespeare’s play in Paris, in the then-popular version with a final touching scene in which Juliet awakens before Romeo dies. Even without understanding much English, Berlioz was profoundly moved. His love affair with Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson provided more stimulation, and Paganini’s financial support guaranteed time for composition.
Berlioz’s innovative approach sets introductory verses, by Emile Deschamps, as a choral recitative, and an alto soloist, in generic imagery, reflects on the bliss of young love. A solo for tenor sets the text of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, virtuoso and fleet both here and in Shakespeare’s original. Arresting theatrical moments—the ball at the Capulets, the lovers’ balcony scene, the final scene in the tomb—are depicted orchestrally. In an homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whose solo and choral finale outweighs the rest of the work, Berlioz brings out Friar Lawrence, who had provided Juliet with the sleeping potion designed to extricate her from an arranged marriage with Count Paris. In this magnificent quasioperatic scene, the bass soloist explains the lovers’ choices, excoriates the rival families for their continued hostility and elicits an oath of reconciliation.
Berlioz’s very personal conception magnifies certain moments, such as the lovely “Convoi funèbre de Juliette” (Juliet’s funeral procession), with its muted, distant choral refrain, “Scatter flowers for the virgin now deceased.” Davis and the BBC, along with the sound engineers, create a sense of the cortège moving through space; it’s a reverent and atmospheric reading.
Overall, the BBC chorus takes the prize here for range of dynamics, clarity, warmth and suave sound. Davis finds tenderness in the textures, particularly from the strings; the performance emphasizes blend and sonic luxury. Samuel Boden’s flexible tenor brings liveliness and wit to Mercutio’s Mab solo, and the breathless ecstasy of Juliet’s reawakening in the tomb is vibrant and excitingly edgy.
Ticciati’s wilder approach brings menacing darkness to the opening, the story already hurtling toward doom. Mezzo-soprano Katija Dragojevic’s warmth and engagement highlight her solo, with its harp arpeggios suggesting an ancient bardic delivery. Ticciati favors the big brassy colors and exuberant rhythms of the ball scene, yet his clear-eyed handling of the love music sounds dull in comparison to Davis’s richer palette. While the Mab speech, with tenor Andrew Staples, sounds heavy-handed and charmless, the massive finale is outstanding, thanks to superb dramatic pacing and the resonant, authoritative singing of Alastair Miles. Ticciati brings spacious airiness to the aria “Pauvres enfants que je pleure” and drama and pulsing energy to the confrontations between Friar Lawrence and the warring families. Miles silences the crowd with a powerful, gripping outburst and leads the oath of reconciliation with a noble, broad line, yet not without lingering censure for the thoughtlessness that caused the tragedy. —Judith Malafronte