Feature review: OAE/Mark Elder – Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette at The Anvil Basingstoke and at The Roundhouse

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Berlioz

Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op.17 [sung in French]

Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Orlin Anastassov (bass)

Schola Cantorum & BBC Symphony Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Sir Mark Elder

The Anvil, Basingstoke

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Berlioz

Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op.17 [Orchestral movements: Introduction; Roméo seul … Grand Fête chez Capulet; Scène d’amour; La Reine Mab (Scherzo); Roméo au tombeau des Capulets]

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Sir Mark Elder

The Roundhouse, London

Friday, February 24, 2012


Between the Royal Festival Hall performance on 18 February and a final performance in Paris on the 26th, Sir Mark Elder and the OAE kept fingers and voices in tune with a complete performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette in The Anvil Basingstoke, and the five orchestral movements to open this year’s Reverb Festival at the Roundhouse (boasting that “contemporary classical has a new home”), part of the OAE’s outreach programme, The Nightshift.

I love this music, but came out of these two performances loving it even more.

Unlike at the Royal Festival Hall, in Basingstoke Mark Elder introduced the work, his clear comments were concise and very funny, setting the scene that the work is based on the version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Berlioz saw in 1827 – with David Garrick’s changes, which goes a long way to explain Berlioz’s approach to the work. Also that the main protagonists are only represented instrumentally, the singers taking the part of other characters (principally the tenor as Mercutio; the bass as Friar Laurence).

Elder too loves this work, describing it as a “happening” given its hybrid nature and its extravagant use both of resources and stage directions. Elder adhered to as many of Berlioz’s instructions as was practical. So the small choir (the excellent Schola Cantorum) couldn’t be present at the same time as the four harps (Berlioz sanctioned up to eight, four to a part) for the orchestral movements. The male voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus were offstage, for the post-fête scene calling for Romeo, and – just as Berlioz requested – the full BBC Symphony Chorus (including mezzos, even though the score calls only for sopranos, tenors and basses) filed on for Juliet’s funeral procession (added by Garrick) and the ensuing operatic scene, with the Friar, one half (stage-left) in brightly coloured shirts as Montagues, the other (right) in black, as befitted the mourning Capulets.

The two main pauses to witness the swapping of choir for harps and vice versa did not delay proceedings too much, and Elder only turned to the audience once more for a further explanation, before ‘Queen Mab (Scherzo)’ – pointing out the move forwards of two percussionists, standing behind the antiphonal first and second violins with their crotales (antique cymbals) – Berlioz being the first composer to use these instruments in this very work.

And so to the performance, with the warring families brought to book by the Duke (ophecleide and trombones) in the ‘Introduction’ (exactly mirroring Shakespeare’s opening scene), before Patricia Bardon (as in London replacing Sonia Ganassi) richly intoned Berlioz’s strophes with Schola Cantorum and single, strumming harp and (more luxury casting) John Mark Ainsley took Mercutio’s role in relating the impish power of Queen Mab.

After the first pause for choir removal and harp transplant, Elder settled into the main orchestral meat of the work. The OAE excelled with a range of timbre and colour, throwing into relief Berlioz’s audacious musical palette and invention. With vibrato-less (well, more or less) strings and plangent reed instruments, let alone the subtler-than-modern brass and percussion, Berlioz’s accompaniments to this swathe of Shakespeare was realised with relish.

The second pause allowed the removal of harps and the quiet assemblage of the BBC Symphony Chorus, for the Garrick-inspired funeral procession for Juliet, life-less from the drug prescribed by Friar Laurence. Even here he was interventionist in allowing Juliet to wake from her drug-induced torpor for one last hedonistic embrace and then the final orchestral movement – perhaps the most forward-looking and remarkable Berlioz ever composed, a sudden explosion of emotion before spluttering out like a candle.

So we are left only with Laurence, to explain his part in Juliet’s downfall and urge the two families not only to put this tragedy behind them but ensure no repeat. Berlioz fashions an operatic set-piece, where the earlier subtle waves of mourning become crashing breakers for the two families, ultimately heeding the Friar’s advice. Orlin Anastassov, on the forestage and without score, all but wrung his hands (he had his head in his hands at one point) in reprising the role he sang for Sir Colin Davis back in 2000 (subsequently released on LSO Live). Similarly, the BBC Symphony Chorus rose to the occasion.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting on a cabaret table virtually under the conductor’s podium at the Roundhouse. The venue was packed, the ‘stalls’ area given over to the tables, upstairs both seated and standing. The bars were open and although presenter Alistair Appleton reiterated that this was an arena where conventions were broken down, most seemed content to listen attentively.

Appleton (eventually realising that the use of “amazing” at every juncture diminished the word) is quite a personable presenter, sitting at the back of the first violins through the performance and occasionally interviewing Elder as well as some of the players. Elder was even funnier, elaborating Berlioz’s exquisite musical re-telling of the main points of Shakespeare story, adding that Queen Mab would alight on an unsuspecting person and make them think of what they wanted most – his example was lawyers thinking of their fees.

Appleton also interviewed leader Matthew Truscott, as well as flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and cor anglais player James Eastaway, for the ‘Scene d’amour’ sitting together as their duet intertwines like the young lovers, Beznosiuk remarking that Berlioz seems to depict the pair’s gauche fumbling, rapidly becoming more experienced. Earlier Appleton had started his delving into the orchestra with ophicleidist James Anderson (who illustrated the special timbre of the instrument with a Gilbert & Sullivan excerpt – An ophicleidist’s lot is not a happy one, in effect) and then released not only him but the trombones and cornets as they were no longer required.

That might have been true of the ophicleide, but not the others as Elder exclaimed before the final movement. He even went off to find them, before Appleton admitted that he had dismissed the players, so Juliet’s tomb was played without brass fleshing out the inner part. Elder proved unflappable, even rising to the occasion, especially when a girl in red hot pants walked between cabaret tables just below him. A raised eyebrow and quick quip resulted in much laughter and then he topped it by asking if the girl played the trombone? At the end of the concert, as the music fades on pizzicato notes, he looked over to where the brass should have been and mimed firing a gun at them. I trust they all made Paris.

Although there were two video screens behind the OAE, some of the shots were too dark to pick out anything but ghostly parts of instruments, but there were some fine shots of Elder in deep concentration. Being so close I got some odd snapshots – a direct view to the various hooped tubes hanging from the horn’s stands (Berlioz scored each part at different pitch) – and a curious auditory affect that made the oboe sound as it came from my far right, and although my front position sometimes lost focus on the wind in particular, there was still a host of detail that came clearly through. I even forgot the constant thrum of the air-conditioning that would have been a real annoyance in a dedicated concert hall.

After the excellence of Basingstoke, I had approached the Roundhouse with some trepidation, but was intrigued and quickly captivated. I wouldn’t want every concert to be like this (not that anyone is suggesting it), but given the quality of the playing and the geniality of the presentation, this was a winning evening. Somehow Berlioz’s extraordinary invention was heightened – from the first thumb-biting to Juliet’s real demise, made musical sense and I wonder why these five movements are not done in that order more often.

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