Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette

Edinburgh International Festival

Usher Hall


18 August ONLY



Berlioz had been deeply dissatisfied with Bellini’s recently-composed I Capuleti ed I Montecchi, feeling that it was not faithful to Shakespeare: furthermore, he did not approve of the part of Roméo being sung by a woman.  After the failure of his own Benvenuto Cellini, he wrote this is a symphonic piece: there is singing, but mainly narrative and commentary.


The work is in seven movements, interleaved with sung poetic texts.  The introduction suggests the furious quarrelling of Capulets and Montagues, which is interrupted by the Prince.  A prologue, largely intoned a capella by a semichorus sets the scene – a ball is being held, and lovesick Romeo is seeking his Juliet: they meet, and the mezzo soloist Magdalena Kožená rhapsodises on the joys of first love.  The tenor (a splendidly lively Kenneth Tarver) tells of Mercutio’s teasing of Romeo – he must have fallen victim to Queen Mab.  Orchestral movements describe Romeo’s yearning while the ball is proceeding, and the love scene that follows.


The interval followed: musically, we could have done well without it, and moved straight into the next movement La reine Mab, ou La Fée des songes.  This describes Mab and her fairy attendants, but also expresses Romeo’s frustration resulting in the tragic deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio.  Heart-rending music announces Juliet’s funeral procession, with sadly-singing chorus: then the tragedy is played out in the tomb, as first Romeo and then Juliet kill themselves.  Père Laurence (John Relyea) appears – the only Shakespearean character to be given voice – who explains the lovers’ deaths to the feuding families and exhorts them to let go of their anger and forgive each other.


The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, were joined by the three soloists, the Tenebrae Consort, and the Festival Chorus.  It was a joy to watch Robin springing about like a younger Simon Rattle, his curls springing wildly and his enthusiasm drawing inspired performances from all concerned.  It’s a curious piece, which I wouldn’t particularly want simply to listen to.  Berlioz’ orchestration is superb, and the orchestral movements were full of emotion – light and delicate, warm and sensual, lyrical and tender, growing in passionate intensity – but I found the sung prologue strangely static, remote and passionless, while the final scene’s vast operatic exhortation to repentance left me unmoved – though the rest of the audience applauded most enthusiastically.



Mary Woodward