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 Those recordings, wonderful as they are, would be in some minds superseded by this DVD of a performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with soloists mezzo Hanna Schwarz, tenor Philip Langridge, and bass Peter Meven -- superseded because some have come to prefer seeing as well as hearing a concert.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.