This Saturday night special gave centre stage to Berlioz’s genre-defying grand romantic masterpiece Roméo et Juliette. With conductor and two of the three soloists unavailable for the performance and substituted at short notice, the Hallé must have been quietly relieved that it went as well as it did. It certainly deserved a larger audience, in any case.

Ludovic Morlot, the Hallé and soloists in Manchester
© The Hallé.

The “dramatic symphony” in seven movements indirectly tells the story of the lovers through the sounds of the orchestra, leaving the double chorus and three soloists to represent the warring families and onlookers respectively. With Sir Mark Elder still recovering from neck surgery but watching from the circle, Ludovic Morlot directed his forces with a minimum of fuss, maintaining a cool economy of gesture without any compromise in intensity of the most passionate scenes, memorably the searing love scene and Queen Mab Scherzo. Generating some sense of dramatic shape in this potentially-nebulous pseudo-symphony is clearly a difficult task: Morlot’s pacing was thoughtful and well weighted, and mapped out the drama from the overture-style opening movement onwards. An occasional lapse of textural clarity did little to dispel this.

The orchestra responded well for the most part, creating the necessarily vivid imagery with gusto. There were attractive solos for principal flute, and the daringly exposed high horn writing came off immaculately. There were transient issues in intonation within the lower strings, though these righted themselves quickly. The quadruple parts for harp and timpani gave some thrilling effects, and it was gratifying to see an ophicleide take its rightful place in the brass section rather than being usurped by the commonly substituted tuba.

Following the orchestra’s superb Damnation de Faust last season, the prospect of hearing Laurent Naouri in Manchester again was an enticing one. He did not disappoint in the reconciliatory final scene of the symphony as Friar Laurence, filling the hall with his rich bass-baritone seemingly effortlessly and interacting with the chorus authoritatively. It was a pity that Alice Coote was unavailable, but mezzo Julie Boulianne commentated with attractive colour and elegance, and Yann Beuron sang Mercutio with spirited energy. Clad in coloured sashes to delineate the two families, the Hallé Choir sang with characteristic fervour, making the Beethovenian choral finale a memorable experience. The RNCM Chamber Choir, placed on stage adjacent to the horns in the introduction and then redeployed to the choir stalls for the finale, sang with remarkable power but crystalline clarity for their slender number.

As the closing event in the orchestra’s 2019 celebration of Berlioz, it was not quite in the same league as La Damnation de Faust. It was an entertaining evening nonetheless, making a strong case for this under-performed work, though it was hard not to come away feeling that it might have been on another level with the originally intended line up.