Saturday saw the première of a new production of Berlioz's dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Choreographed by Sasha Waltz and conducted by Donald Runnicles, it became a modern dance extravaganza, less concerned with Berlioz's music than it was with the dancers' movement.

<i>Roméo et Juliette</i> at Deutsche Oper © Bernd Uhlig
Roméo et Juliette at Deutsche Oper
© Bernd Uhlig

Berlioz began composing Roméo et Juliette in 1839, after witnessing a production of Shakespeare's play at the Odeon Theatre, Paris, in 1827 with a cast which included Harriet Smithson. As with so many of Berlioz's inspirations, Romeo and Juliet smacked the composer in the face with its beauty and power. “By the third act, scarcely able to breathe – it was as though an iron hand had gripped me by the heart – I knew that I was lost,” he wrote in his memoirs. Together with librettist Emile Deschamps, Berlioz set out creating a symphony in the style of Beethoven's Ninth, featuring both vocal and instrumental music. Unlike Beethoven, however, the vocals appear throughout the work, sung by a mezzo, a tenor and a baritone, as well as a chorus.

The Deutsche Oper utilized Ronnita Miller, Thomas Blondelle and Nicolas Courjal, regular members of its excellent ensemble. Miller sang with a plummy richness, her ample voice filling the house. One wishes that Berlioz had seen fit to write more music for the mezzo, as Miller was worth the evening alone. Thomas Blondelle sang an equally fine tenor, though he, like Miller, was relegated to singing at the side of the stage while the dancers cavorted. Only Nicolas Courjel, as Frère Laurent, was allowed to do anything remotely like acting, and even he was shadowed by a dancer. Even so, he sang with passion, and conveyed his character's hopes and fears.

<i>Roméo et Juliette</i> at Deutsche Oper © Bernd Uhlig
Roméo et Juliette at Deutsche Oper
© Bernd Uhlig

Truly, the evening was less about Berlioz's music than it was about the dancers telling the story. Berlioz and Deschamps pruned Shakespeare's play of most of its plot, making it solely about the romance between the two scions of the feuding families, the party they attend together, their marriage, and their deaths. Berlioz's Roméo and Juliette have been seeing each other rather longer than one night, we are led to believe, and their marriage is Friar Laurence's attempt to get the two families to reconcile.

Sasha Waltz's choreography tells the story straightly enough, but it does so in a rather grotesque and unlovely manner. There are lots of slumped shoulders and stiff legs, plenty of stomping of feet and flinging of limbs and shaking of rear ends. The costumes were simple, black for the Montagues and white for the Capulets, with the chorus in matching ensembles that made them look rather like flying nuns on holiday in the south of France. Roméo was danced by Joel Suarez Gomez, a fine and passionate dancer, and Juliette was danced by Yael Schnell, who brought home her character's youthful naïveté and amorousness. Frère Laurent's dancing double was Orlando Rodriquez, stormy and upright as the sole source of reason within the story.

The Deutsche Oper Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, did a fine job of Berlioz's music, though they could not drown out the stamping of the feet onstage. Likewise, the Chor der Deutsche Oper did an excellent job, providing commentary on the actions. Ultimately, one wishes that the dance had been eschewed in favour of the music, but the production was a good one and received many ovations. Doubtless it will enjoy a long life.