Arts concert review

Romeo and Juliet, as told by Berlioz and the BSO

Dramatic choral symphony renews messages of love and peace

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The BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the finale of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette

Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette”

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Conducted by Andris Nelsons

Boston Symphony Hall

May 4, 2024

Romeo and Juliet is a story of love, war, and peace that has stood the test of time and has inspired countless generations of artists and storytellers. Among these artists was Hector Berlioz — a French composer who lived in the first half of the 19th century. Berlioz is known for his programmatic works that tell stories through music, such as the Symphonie Fantastique. His Roméo et Juliette is a programmatic symphony with elements of opera that heighten the drama. Berlioz based his symphony on eighteenth-century English actor David Garrick’s version of Romeo and Juliet, through which he fell in love with his future wife, actress Harriet Smithson.

The symphony opens with an exciting frenzy of sharp notes from the viola, depicting combat between the Montagues and Capulets. The prince intervenes and the prologue follows. The prologue serves a similar function to an opera overture by providing a preview of the scenes to follow. Unlike an opera overture which is strictly orchestral, however, the prologue includes a small chorus and two soloists (mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and tenor Nicholas Phan) alongside the orchestra. 

Compared to other programmatic symphonies, it was refreshing to hear a narration by the chorus and soloists which provided context and added meaning to the music. For instance, the lush sound of strings was accompanied by Bridges’ praise of love. Conversely, the music also enhanced the sung text. When the chorus sang of the fairy of dreams Queen Mab vanishing into air, there was a corresponding flourish in the flutes followed by silence which led to a few chuckles from the audience. 

After the prologue, the orchestra primarily told the story. Berlioz adeptly uses a variety of instruments and musical textures to paint each of the scenes. During the scene of the Capulets’ ball, the vivacious strings and waltzy strum of the bass made me want to stomp and dance along. The guests sang along as they trickled away. The chorus sang from backstage, effectively creating an impression of faraway voices. The voices then faded away, melting into the sound of the clarinet for the next scene. This is one of the many transitions that the BSO smoothly executes, keeping the audience entranced by the music and story. 

The most powerful aspect of the performance was the chorus. In the romantic and dreamy scenes, the angelic singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus complemented the soaring cello melodies, the arpeggios of the harp, and the delicate and smooth flute lines to create an ethereal atmosphere. In the Finale, the chorus played the important role of the Montagues and Capulets. Having so many voices gasp in synchrony amplified the tragic surprise of Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths. The arguing and finger-pointing between the two families played out in clamorous polyphony, adding to the chaos of the scene. 

Friar Lawrence, portrayed by bass John Relyea, silences the chorus and begs them to stop fighting. The Friar’s commanding authority and frustration with the warring families was palpable in Relyea’s singing. The Montagues and Capulets listen to him, recognizing the detrimental effects of their feud, and agree to reconcile. The chorus’s vow to peace and brotherly love ends the symphony.

The journey from ethereal voices to a booming chorus was a transformative experience, reminiscent of awakenings in religious masses. The sonorous power of both the chorus and the orchestra at the end made it difficult to not believe in love and peace, especially in these times of turmoil. Overall, Berlioz’s use of a chorus and vivid musical imagery and the BSO’s gut-wrenching execution of the piece renewed messages of love and peace in the classic story of Romeo and Juliet