Prom 20 proved an exhilarating journey, featuring Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette as one of the key works of this year’s BBC Proms' Shakespeare 400 celebrations. Heavily associated with the music of Berlioz, conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the musicians of his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique were joined by The Monteverdi Choir and three soloists. This was French-Canadian soprano Julie Boulianne’s Proms debut alongside tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and bass-baritone Laurent Naouri.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, inspired by Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, captures the essence of the tale of the two doomed lovers and the orchestra conveyed this with vibrant imagination in their performance. The lack of interval allowed for an absolutely immersive performance, making it easy to transcend and lose oneself in the scenes of the story. The orchestral colour was enhanced by the use of antique instruments which gave an extra element of romanticism to the sound of Berlioz’s score.

All three soloists had a great sense of presence on stage and were captivating whilst acting out the tale. They entered on stage with The Monteverdi Choir whilst the orchestra played the prologue, setting the scene. Naouri made a convincing and memorable Friar Laurence at the end, addressing and gesturing to the singers as the Montague and Capulet families behind the orchestra as he sang out “Silence, malheureux!” (Silence, you wretches!) with true authority.

There were many components to this performance, all carefully created and directed around the orchestra as the central musical focus of this thrilling work with Gardiner as its focal engineer. He was not the only conductor of the evening as Dinis Sousa, following Gardiner’s lead, conducted The Monteverdi Choir from a podium in the central standing pit of the audience.

Simple placement of the musicians was used to great effect, enhancing the storytelling in the concert. The most significant movement on stage was the entrance of the National Youth Choir of Scotland. This was done with a slow processional in time with the music and in formation from either side of the stage during Juliet’s funeral cortége. This created a memorable scene as they sang “Jetez des fleurs pour la vierge expirée!” (Strew flowers for the dead maiden!). This scene built into a beautiful and emotional requiem as the soloists and Monteverdi Choir also joined the cortége procession. The least effective placement was the entrance of two percussion soloists with antique cymbals (crotales) who entered the stage at the beginning of Part Four, coming after a fairly disappointing natural horn entrance in the Queen Mab Scherzo. They could barely be heard over the orchestra despite being placed front stage and served as more of a distraction than enhancement. Despite this, the previous Love Scene absolutely captured the essence of Romeo and Juliet. Although there was no famous Balcony scene as such in Emile Deschamps’ words to Berlioz’s music, a chorus of men representing the Young Capulets sang gloriously from the top balcony in the Royal Albert Hall to echo the famous picture. The space between the orchestra below and the distant singers was marvellously balanced.

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique added to the word painting of Berlioz’s score in a fantastically convincing colouring of the image of Romeo discovering Juliet in the tomb in an episodic emotions of frenzied joy, despair, final agony and death. 

****1