That Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette is only occasionally performed is attributable not only to its distinctive form, but also Berlioz's rather extravagant use of his forces. He uses a large orchestra, one that includes 4 bassoons, 2 trumpets and 2 cornets and significant percussion, with 4 harps who are only deployed in the scherzo; a semi-chorus and a full chorus, plus mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists who really only get 1 solo each in the first movement and a bass soloist who does not appear till the last movement.
Regarding form, I have always found Berlioz rather filmic. By that I don't mean that he wrote film-style music but that his attitude to dramaturgy implies the sort of flexibility you get from film. For instance in Act 4 of Les Troyens you feel the camera zooming in on individuals then panning out to take in the whole; Berlioz all the while unconcerned what the remaining cast are doing during the close-ups. Similarly in Romeo et Juliette he uses the sort of parallel technique beloved of film makers. In the choral opening movement we get a digested summary of the action, after moments of the ball we see Romeo leaping over the garden wall to meet Juliette.
Then Berlioz returns back to examine the scenes in detail, this time with orchestra only, effectively playing back the scenes from a different point of view, something that works well in film. In fact he does use voices, off stage to evoke the revellers in the distance at the beginning of the love scene, a magical touch. So we return to the Ball, Love Scene, the Queen Mab scherzo examining them deeper. Berlioz then leads us to the scene in the tomb, introducing the chorus full for the first time, though real musical interest is in the orchestra as the chorus simply intones on a monotone. But again he returns to the scene in purely orchestral form before the choral finale.
Of course, the structurally the work can be seen in terms of the impact of Beethoven's choral symphony on Berlioz. But as a dramatic work, Berlioz's non-linear narrative works in terms of film structure analogy - I can clearly imagine a film structured like Berlioz's dramatic symphony.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, BBC Symphony Chorus, Schola Cantorum of Oxford under conductor Sir Mark Elder performed the symphony to a packed Royal Festival Hall on Saturday (18th Feb 2012). Using period instruments brought many felicitous touches to the performance. Perhaps chief of these was the balance, the way the wind were simply more prominent and did not have to fight through a cushion of string sound; the result was far less luxurious but gave a more varied and expressive texture to the music. Certain moments stand out, the duet between flute and cor anglais in the love scene, the magical scoring with the four harps in the scherzo.
Sir Mark Elder isn't someone I automatically associate with the music of Berlioz, but we heard him conduct L'enfance du Christ in December. His account of Romeo et Juliette relished all the stronger textures the period instruments brought, but he never lost sight of the structure and the pulse of Berlioz's dramatic work was nicely judged. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi and tenor John Mark Ainsley contributed nicely shaped solos in the first movement and Orlin Anastov was dramatically imposing during the choral finale. The Schola Cantorum of Oxford were the fine-grained semi chorus and the BBC Symphony Chorus were finally able to show their mettle in the finale.
In the present economic climate I doubt that we can expect the work to be recorded on disc, but the performance was recorded for broadcast on Radio 3 on February 26th, so I'd certainly put the date in your diary.