Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 [“orchestral theatre staging”]
Mathew Baynton (actor); Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
Jane Mitchell & James Bonas – Directors
Kate Wicks – Designer
Will Reynolds – consultant designer
Cydney Uffindell-Phillips – movement consultant
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 12 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A bare stage – save for percussion on the top riser (with six covered mystery items), a couple of harps stage-right and risers with chairs obviously for cellos and basses – was the unlikely start to this reprise Prom of the one that had gone immediately before. Nicholas Collon entered alone to set the scene, introducing actor Mathew Baynton and, by reading Hiller’s description of the composer in question, metamorphosed the actor into Berlioz. Baynton then quickly reprised what happened exactly 192 years and a day ago (11 September 1827) when Berlioz first saw Harriet Smithson, to the accompaniment of a small group of strings, harp and clarinet who had silently taken their place for some soirée music (presumably Berlioz, but not immediately recognisable). Silently the rest of the Aurora Orchestra brought on white models of tall apartment buildings and windmills, lit from within to create 1820s Paris, before taking them up to the back of the stage.
With Smithson the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastique Collon then explained the idea behind Berlioz’s idée fixe with the help of Aurora’s first-violin section filing on to the stage, with the full forty-bar theme displayed on the digital display band directly below Sir Henry Wood’s bust. More players came on to illustrate how the theme is transmuted through each movement, before Baynton recited Berlioz’s programmatic story behind the first movement and we were off.
With all but cellos and basses standing and – Aurora’s calling card – playing from memory this was a typically invigorating performance with some daring pianissimos (sometimes so quiet they were almost inaudible) and with a nod to period practice. Most notable was the choreography that memorising the music allows. At least one practice was Berlioz’s original intention, bringing harps to the front for the second movement ball scene: not just two, but four, the stage change neatly covered by Baynton reciting Berlioz’s ideas about why harps should be given more prominence. The ball scene (with the cornet part) was topped, just at the end, with the non-playing percussionists unveiling the mystery objects – six glitterballs added to the one suspended high above the Arena – to bathe the whole of the auditorium, briefly and deliriously, in circling lights. The effect was magical.
After Baynton had taken us back to when Berlioz was sixteen and first realising how lonely you could feel in the country, Patrick Flanagan appeared at the front of the stage with his cor anglais to call across the (rather empty) Arena to oboist John Roberts, standing on the steps at the back of the Hall, to start the slow movement. Tenor drums, slung to their percussionists’ sides, stood patiently at the side of the stage for the ‘March to the Scaffold’ which also saw the four bassoonists come forward to circle Collon for their menacing chugging theme that permeates the movement. Finally – while Baynton had ended Berlioz’s by-now opium-induced tale with the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ – the whole orchestra donned eerie white masks – those in the treble range looked like cat skulls; bass ranges in strings and wind wore deer skulls with antlers; brass looked as if they donned long-eared bat masks, with a phalanx of percussionists with ram skulls. I can’t vouch for the masks (if any) the bells’ players wore, as they were up in the Gallery (and perhaps – given they represent the church’s tolling bells – it would have been wrong for them to wear any such thing), but I did wonder if Collon should not also have worn one: he was, after all, demonic convener incarnate – a very Beelzebub in fact.
Visually and aurally, this was an audacious expansion of Aurora’s memory performances. Baynton was likeable as Berlioz and managed to project clearly in the few moments early on when his microphone cut out. The performance had been well run in, having already been to Aldeburgh, Rheingau and – with Baynton – Saffron Walden, with a further performance to close the Bremen Festival on September 14 (without the dramatisation), and was a fitting final commemoration of the composer’s 150th-death anniversary.