John Nelson conducts Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette
Roméo et Juliette, Strasbourg, June 2022. Photo © Nicolas Roses
In the wake of the already-legendary Colin Davis era of Berlioz performance and recording, no one has trodden the path of successor more assiduously than the American conductor John Nelson. Not the least remarkable thing about Nelson’s project to record the major works with the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg for Warner on the Erato label is that it started only in 2017, by which time the conductor was already in the mid-seventies. Highly-lauded recordings of Les Troyens (2017), La Damnation de Faust (2019) and the Grande Messe des morts (Requiem) (2019) have to date appeared. In a review for Opera magazine (July 2019) I wrote that Nelson had: ‘[confirmed] himself as the Berliozian de nos jours, a worthy successor to Colin Davis. The evening made for a triumphant addition to the Berlioz anniversary celebrations, there being little doubt that the subsequent recording is in line to repeat the award-littered success of Les Troyens’.
The Covid pandemic obviously brought a temporary halt to activity, during which time Nelson experienced an unrelated illness. However at the beginning of June 2022 the cycled resumed with the performance and recording of Roméo et Juliette at two concerts in Strasbourg, succeeded by one at the Philharmonie de Paris. It was the last of these I attended on 10 June, but before turning to that a brief introduction to the work itself.
It is a direct reflection of Berlioz’s passion for Shakespeare, a passion shared by many French artists in the 1820s. As the Berlioz scholar David Cairns has observed, they found in the plays presented by a company brought to Paris by the English actor John Kemble an intensely Romantic emancipation from the stultifying academic atmosphere prevalent in the Paris of the period. For Berlioz, who fought against such pedantry his entire life, the discovery of Shakespeare came like a thunderbolt, to use his own word. In the Memoirs – arguably the best and certainly the most entertaining book ever written by a musician - he writes of how in the autumn of 1827 he went to see the Kemble company’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, an experience that in a ‘lightening flash revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art […]. I recognised the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth […]’. It was not only Shakespeare who captured Berlioz at those performances; he fell head over heels in love with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress that played Ophelia and Juliet. After five years of passionate pursuit, Berlioz would eventually marry Harriet.
Berlioz was enabled to write Roméo et Juliette as the result of the generous sponsorship of Paganini, who gifted him a sum sufficient to allow him to work on the score almost uninterrupted for seven months in 1839. Although never termed as anything other as a symphony – the score is headed ‘dramatic symphony’ - from the outset the symphony was planned on a scale and design unique in musical history, as Berlioz well recognised when he described it in a letter to his father: ‘the art form which it contained [is] totally new’. Although ostensibly cast as a four-movement symphony, three have text, crafted by Berlioz himself, the whole a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s story told in graphic detail. When the work was first given in Paris in November 1839 the two performances were acclaimed to the point where the composer could describe them to his father as ‘probably the greatest success I’ve had so far’, the second performance in particular as ‘stupendous, overwhelming’. He continues, ‘At the end of the concert […] the whole orchestra and chorus stood up hurrahing loudly enough to bring down the roof of the hall’.
If the Paris performance conducted by John Nelson fortunately didn’t threaten to bring down the roof of the Philharmonie, it was certainly deservedly received with great acclaim. Nelson today cuts a frail figure on his journey’s to and from the podium, but this did not prevent him from the ability to inspire the augmented Strasbourg orchestra to playing of the greatest fervour and affecting sensitivity. The extraordinarily bold writing in the passage marked ‘Roméo au tombeau de Capulets’ – a sequence of extreme conflicting emotions – came across with vivid, searing intensity. The only caveat would be some less than totally precise brass ensemble, but against that can be placed the glitteringly agile wind playing in the Scherzetto that ends Part 1, ‘Bientôt de Roméo’, its patter superbly delivered by tenor Cyrille Dubois. In the opening sections Nelson was fortunate to have no less a luminary than Joyce DiDonato, who has been a mainstay of his Berlioz cycle and who here sang the Strophes section with utterly gorgeous tone. Less satisfactory to my mind was Christopher Maltman’s Père Laurence, who although he brought great authority and dignity to the Finale and reconciliation scene sang with an unremitting wide vibrato. The chorus (Gulbenkian and l’Opéra national du Rhin), too, was less than convincing at times, though some of that may have been down to the not ideal acoustics of the Philharmonie. Notwithstanding, overall the performance was one to renew admiration for the astonishing originality of Berlioz’s conception and for John Nelson’s splendid ongoing Berlioz cycle.