Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director), and three vocal soloists, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, in a performance of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 17, “Roméo et Juliette,” which the composer called a “dramatic symphony.” This was the first of four performances of the final program of the 2016–17 season. Because this is a “choral symphony,” it is natural to seek out connections to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor; but the primary inspiration seems to have been a performance of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet play (in David Garrick’s edited version) performed at the Odéon Theatre in Paris with a cast that included Harriet Smithson.
Berlioz was hopelessly smitten with Smithson; and she had inspired his Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique.” They would eventually marry, after which they lived unhappily for several years. Berlioz began work on his Opus 17 in 1839, after the marriage but before the separation. The piece was given its first performance on November 24, 1839, after which Berlioz would work on revising the score until 1846.
What makes Opus 17 particularly interesting is that, while the Opus 14 symphony had a clearly-defined narrative line, Opus 17 is far from a “narration” of Shakespeare’s play. One might almost say that it amounts to a “view” of the plot; but that view is seen through a kaleidoscope, whose multiple reflections enlarge objects and distort them while blocking out other objects. The result is an epic panorama of symphonic and vocal sonorities, across which one encounters several key episodes from the plot along with almost as many minor ones. For example, Queen Mab shows up twice, first a tenor solo in the first movement and then in an orchestral scherzo in the fourth. Tybalt, on the other hand, is mentioned only in passing in the final movement.
Shakespeare’s play is so well known that no one need worry very much about the absence of a direct encounter with the plot. More important is how the musical resources trigger memories of that plot and how performance enables that triggering. From that point of view, it was almost impossible to find any faults in how MTT led his resources to present Berlioz’ score. As he had done with the Opus 14 symphony, Berlioz provided descriptions for his seven movements. These were effectively translated from the handbill (shown below) for the first performance and included in the program book, as were the French texts by Émile Deschamps and English translations by David Cairns. Those translations were also projected as surtitles, but the program book was much more helpful for providing context.
Handbill for the first performance of Berlioz' Opus 17 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
The primary virtue of last night’s performance was the clarity with which all the elements of Berlioz’ score were presented to the attentive listener. That same handbill enumerated 201 performers, 100 in the orchestra, the three vocal soloists, a twelve-voice chorus for the prologue, and separate choruses for the Capulets (42 voices) and the Montagues (44 voices). Between the sheer magnitude of those resources and Berlioz’ style, which frequently relied on laying out a series of fragmented impressions without very much structural or rhetorical glue, effective presentation poses any number of challenges. Nevertheless, MTT always seemed to know where to guide the ear through the landscape of all of those fragments, whether they involved accompanying the mezzo with only four cellos or negotiating the fugal counterpoint that arises every time the Capulets and the Montagues go at each other.
Cooke’s solo, by the way, not only never involves any of Shakespeare’s words but also references him explicitly! Similarly, Phan’s solo cites Mercutio before launching into his account of Queen Mab. Pisaroni was the only soloist to take on a narrative role, that of Friar Laurence, who also assumes some of the narrative duties that Shakespeare had assigned to Prince Escalus. Here again, however, it was the clarity of these soloists’ respective deliveries that guided the listener through the maze of Berlioz’ highly personal impressions of Shakespeare’s play.
The same can be said of how the SFS Chorus was managed. The reduced chorus for the Prologue took the center of the terrace seating. That meant that the Capulets and Montagues could be separated to the left and right (not that I was ever able to distinguish which was which). MTT always found the right way to balance choral and instrumental resources, making it easy for the listener to appreciate how text worked with music to define the landscape of the composer’s impressions. This all made for a thoroughly memorable evening that situated Berlioz in the best possible light for appreciating this massive undertaking.