17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
Sir Colin Davis has recorded the Berlioz 'Romeo et Juliette' several times on CD, most particularly with the London Symphony and with the Vienna Philharmonic. Interestingly, the chorus on the VPO recording is the same one used here, that of the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Those recordings, wonderful as they are, would be in some minds superseded by this DVD of a performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with soloists mezzo Hanna Schwarz, tenor Philip Langridge, and bass Peter Meven -- superseded because some have come to prefer seeing as well as hearing a concert. Certainly one's attention is engaged more strongly with the visual element. I suppose that is one reason opera DVDs have become so very popular in the last few years. As far as I know, this is the only 'Romeo et Juliette' available on DVD. And considering that the performance, the sound and the video are all superb, it's hard to imagine another one coming along any time soon. (The last time I made such a prediction, there was a new version of a fairly rare work within a couple of months!)
'Romeo et Juliette,' even though we've had more than 150 years to absorb it, continues to amaze and confound. The first question in some minds is 'what is it?'. Berlioz called it a 'symphonie dramatique,' and indeed it has some elements of the classical symphony. But, modeled as it was on Beethoven's Ninth, it has chorus and solo singers. They are not confined to the final movement as in the Beethoven but are sprinkled throughout the work, even in the first movement. Further, there is a dramatic story involved, so that one could imagine this is really a dramatic oratorio or cantata. Whatever it is, there are some peculiarities. For instance, the singers do not portray the personae in Shakespeare's play, but rather comment on the action, all of which takes place in the orchestra. The heart of the work, the scene of Romeo alone in Juliet's garden followed by their love scene, and then the Queen Mab Scherzo, are purely instrumental and yet highly dramatic -- not to forget gloriously beautiful -- music.
It is not clear when this live performance was recorded; the booklet and DVD case make no mention of copyright or performance date. From internal evidence I would guess that it was made in the early 1990s. Indeed, bass Peter Meven died in 2003 so we know it antedates that (well, duh, I guess!). Sound is spectacular in spite of it being only in the older PCM stereo (no DD5.1 or DTS5.1 here). The picture is stunningly clear. The performance took place in the Kulturzentrum Gasteig in Munich, a beautiful space with rich wooden interior and exposed organ pipes. The audience is very quiet. There are edits between movements; it is a little odd to close one movement with the orchestra alone onstage and then immediately see the chorus onstage seemingly transported there by magic. Soloists could not be better. Hanna Schwarz has a rich, plangent mezzo, Philip Langridge's diction is immaculate, and Peter Meven's bass is full and dramatic. As for the musical direction, is there anyone who has Berlioz's measure better than Sir Colin? I don't think so. He is clearly living every note and he draws exceptional playing from his orchestra.
If you love this work, you really ought to get this DVD. Even if you don't, I'd recommend it if you want to know the work better.
Subtitles of the French text are available in English, German, Spanish and, yes, French. TT=102mins.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Dramatic symphony? Ballet without dancers? Hector Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" is effectively a genre in itself, and a bold experiment in musical structure, especially considered that it was premiered in 1839. At 100 minutes, it's almost twice the length of Beethoven's Choral (9th) Symphony, which was surely the musical 'model' for Berlioz's conception. On the other hand, the French productions of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that Berlioz could have seen were all abridged and simplified, and the earlier opera based on the play - Bellini's 'I Capuletti ed i Montechhi' - was ridiculed by Berlioz as "vulgar, ridiculous, weak, and empty." To my ears, however, Berlioz's grandiose symphonic expression has very little to do with Shakespeare's ambiguous tragicomedy. It isn't a depiction of the action of the play, but rather a set of commentaries or observations on the narrative situation, sung by three soloists and a chorus. Only the third soloist, the basso, clearly represents a party to the action in Verona, identifying himself as the priest who married the already dead young lovers. The emotional 'narrative' belongs entirely to the orchestra.
One can make a case that "Romeo et Juliette" really does adhere to the four-movement structure of the classical symphony, and then expands that structure with a fifth movement. Most listeners, at home or in a concert hall, will probably scoff at such formalism; there are clearly fourteen segments, with full-stop cadences, some of which include the voices and some of which are purely orchestral. It's a difficult work to unify in interpretation, in other words, and one in which the parts are always clearer and more affective than the whole. I expected to find that hearing/seeing it on this DVD would surmount the difficulty of unity, but I can't declare that such was the case. Conductor Colin Davis has a large reputation as an interpreter of Berlioz, but honestly I didn't enjoy watching him on the podium. He looks much like an electioneering British Member of Parliament. The enormous forces of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra responded to his rather stagey conducting with impressive ensemble discipline, but the total 'sound' of their 20th C instruments was, to my ears, throttled and staid. You might want to watch the DVD of "Les Troyens" with John Eliot Gardiner conducted his orchestra of period instruments. Gardiner is visibly more engaged in the music, and the lines of orchestration are much more excitingly transparent.
This DVD is certainly worth hearing and seeing, but it's weakened by the slurry, muffled singing of the Bavarian Radio Chorus and by the awkward singing of alto Hanna Schwarz: unshaped phrases, uncertain tuning, unimpassioned affect, and execrable pronunciation of French. Fortunately, hers is a brief role. The enunciation of the chorus, by the way, is just as execrable; only basso Peter Meven achieves intelligibility in his French declamation.
Is it worthwhile to choose the DVD format over any of the CDs available, including recordings by Colin Davis? That will depend primarily on your home sound system, supposing that you have one set-up for DVDs and another for CDs. This is very BIG music; it can barely be crammed through any digitalization or any speakers. Frankly, if there's any chance of hearing "Romeo et Juliette" live in concert, that will be worth ten times what you'll hear electronically.