SSO – Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette – Dutoit – Return of the Ophicleide

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is one of my favourite big works, and it is relatively infrequently performed in Sydney. When the SSO gave a special offer of $39 to take a friend, I instantly befriended myself for Saturday afternoon and took D on Friday, when I already had a ticket.

The structure of the work is peculiar. Part one starts with a kind of overture, depicting the combat between the families and the intervention of the prince, after which there is a prologue in which two soloists and a semi-choir (12 singers, ATB) act rather as a true tragic chorus. In fact, they pretty much lay out the program of the succeeding parts 2 and 3 of the work, which (skipping any subplot) take us up to the death of R and J.

Part 2 starts the story up with Romeo mooning around (not in the modern sense) then going to the ball (pretty reminiscent in style of Symphonie Fantastique) followed by (after some scene setting with offstage returning revellers) the balcony scene and a “Mab” section which has already been prefigured by the tenor soloist in part one.

In Part 3, the chorus return in the role of the mourners at Juliet’s death, after which we have the scene at the tomb, in Garrick’s version (where Juliet wakes up before Romeo’s death for a final passionate moment together). In part 4, Friar Lawrence explains all to the warring Ms and Cs, before abjuring them to reconcile, which they do (under the sign of the cross) in a particularly splendid long-lined tune.

Berlioz’s vision of Shakespeare is a fascinating prism through which one can view, simultaneously, romanticism and Shakespeare, depending, as it were, on which end you look in from. One piquant touch is its association with Berlioz’s own big love, for Harriet Smithson, whom he saw first as Ophelia and then as Juliet. The endwrapper to my copy of volume 1 of David Cairns’ biography wryly describes this as “his almost mad obsession with the English actress Harriet Smithson which ended – unhappily for them both – in marriage.” The music is also – especially if you embrace its vision, and why would you not wish to, at least for a moment? – moving. On Saturday, the quite elderly (my estimate: 85) man to my left squeezed his wife’s hand for the romantic moments (including a passage dealing with how precious and sweet first love is) and even kissed it once. So I guess romantic love still works for some.

The Berlioz seemed much more up Dutoit’s street than the Strauss of a week ago. I am sorry to say (because in the end it seems to favour a Hobbesian view of human nature) that I have heard that the orchestra plays well for him because they are all terrified of him. On Saturday we saw a flash of the inner despot when the genial mask of Dutoit’s podium manner slipped – some latecomers were talking just behind him in the very front row at the beginning of the quietest, slowest and most difficult (for those reasons) movement. He turned and made a furious gesture – either for silence or no further latecomers to be admitted, in their or possibly the usher’s direction.

Motivated by fear or not, the violins, in particular, really rose to the occasion both in tone and discipline. There were a few muffed horn notes, mostly because highish and quiet. The main choir sang better loud than soft, when they got a few not-so-subtle hints from M. Dutoit to maintain their pitch.

Despite my dire predictions (having sat through a depleted Musica Viva recital by Cheryl Barker and Piers Lane on Thursday for which he was indisposed) Peter Coleman-Wright sang Friar Lawrence on Friday and Saturday. He sang well if a little cautiously – his last notes on each occasion offered a hint of what he might have managed if in better vocal condition.

There were surtitles. When Friar L sang of “last judgement” the lawyer in me wanted to correct the spelling to “judgment.”

And at the end of the back row of the orchestra (apart from the percussion), after the last trombone, where there might have been a tuba, I spotted an Ophicleide. Vindicated!

Not that you would have known this from the program, which omitted the usual information about instrumentation and previous performances by the SSO or otherwise in Australia, and also (as is now always the case) neglected even to attempt to give an accurate account of the musicians actually playing for the performance.

3 Responses to “SSO – Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette – Dutoit – Return of the Ophicleide”

  1. Thom Says:

    That would be something like…
    First ABC orchestra performance of Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette: SSO in 1950, Eugene Goossens, with artists including Frank Lisle, the Conservatorium Choir and the Police Choir. More recent SSO performances: 1983, Charles Mackerras (Elizabeth Campbell, Anson Austin, Grant Dickson and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir); 1992, Mark Elder (Elizabeth Campbell, Gerald English, Willard White and SPC); 1999, Edo de Waart (Charlotte Hellekant, Julian Gavin, Peter Coleman-Wright and, I imagine but can’t verify in the moment, SPC).

  2. marcellous Says:

    Thanks for that. Do put me right if I missed it on some page of the program. Those last three casts sent me right back down memory lane! I wondered if the Contemporary Singers or some other Cantillation precursor may have been the semi-chorus on one previous occasion, possibly the last since it is only that which you seem uncertain about.

  3. Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily Says:

    […] reviews a SSO concert (Berlioz and […]

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