Friday, June 11, 2010

Sunday Classics Preview: Berlioz' "Roméo"


by Ken

Yes, it's Berlioz this week. Sunday we're going to be looking, from a very particular point of view, at two extraordinary Shakespeare adaptations, and we'll sample them in our previews: tonight, the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette; tomorrow, the opera Béatrice et Bénédict (very freely adapted from Much Ado About Nothing, of course).

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette (dramatic symphony), Op. 17:
Orchestral Excerpts

If you don't know what a "dramatic symphony" is, don't worry. Nobody else does either, except perhaps Berlioz, who invented the term to describe the indescribable form of his Roméo. It has crucially important choral sections and three briefly important vocal solos, and then much of the action is depicted in purely orchestral terms. For tonight I thought we'd (mostly) just enjoy these purely orchestral excerpts, which begin with the very opening of the piece, followed by self-contained movements -- the tour de force being the gorgeous "Love Scene" -- whose place in the story is fairly clear from the titles.

i. Combat and tumult -- Intervention of the Prince

ii. Romeo alone -- Melancholy --Distant noises of music and dancing -- Grand festivities at the Capulets'

iii. Scherzo: Queen Mab, or the dream fairy

iv. Love scene -- Night -- The Capulets' garden

v. Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 13-15, 1969


Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17:
Part I, Strophes (mezzo-soprano with semi-chorus),
"Premiers transports que nul n'oublie"
("First transports that no one forgets")

To get some flavor of the unusualness of Berlioz' Roméo, and also to provide some feel for where we're headed Sunday, we return now to Part I, which is essentially a prologue, and we have our first hearings of these "strophes" sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist with the "semi-chorus" of 14 voices specified by the composer joining in at the end of each stanza.
First transports that no one forgets,
first declarations, first vows
of two lovers.
Under the stars of Italy,
in that warm air without breezes,
which distant orange blossoms scent,
where the nightingale
wastes away with long sighs.

What art, in its chosen tongue,
could describe your heavenly delights?
First love, are you not
more exalted than all poetry?
Or rather are you not, in our mortal exile,
that poetry itself
of which Shakespeare alone had the supreme secret,
and which he took with him
[SEMI-CHORUS joining in] to heaven?

Happy children with hearts on fire!
Joined in love by the chance
of a single look,
hide it well under the shadow of flowers,
that divine fire that sets you ablaze,
ecstasy so pure
that its words are tears.

What king could match the transports
of your chaste delights?
Happy children! and what treasures
could purchase a single one of your sighs?
Ah! savor for a long time that cup of honey,
sweeter than the chalices
from which God's angels, jealous of your delights,
draw happiness
[SEMI-CHORUS joining in] in heaven!

[very low recording level] Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano; Montreal Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1985

Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano; New England Conservatory Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 23-24, 1961


Our first glimpse of Béatrice et Bénédict, including the Overture -- one of Berlioz' enduringly popular overtures -- and arias by the cousins Héro and Béatrice.


The current list is here.

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