In 1827, French composer Hector Berlioz saw Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Juliet in an English-language production of Romeo and Juliet at Paris’ Théâtre de l’Odéon. He immediately became obsessed with both Shakespeare and Smithson, started planning a large-scale work based on the tragedy, and convinced the reluctant Smithson to marry him in 1833. Their relationship succeeded only marginally better than that of Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” — they separated several years later — but Roméo et Juliette, which premiered in 1839, was one of Berlioz’ supreme achievements.
It will be performed on Sunday, Feb. 19, by the Santa Fe Symphony and Chorus, with a total musician count of 174, quite possibly a record for the Lensic Performing Arts Center stage. Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa leads the orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists Rebecca Robinson (mezzo-soprano), John Tiranno (tenor), and Adrian Smith (baritone) in the kind of sweeping, full-length work Santa Fe seldom gets to enjoy.
Berlioz intentionally set out not to write a standard operatic treatment of the well-known story and triumphed admirably. His title characters are portrayed by the orchestra rather than by singers, and he drew musical inspiration from two Beethoven symphonies, rather than operatic models.
The “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, with its depiction of folk dancing, a thunderstorm, a flowing brook, and multiple bird types, convinced him that an orchestra could portray real-life activities. From the “Choral” Symphony, No. 9, Berlioz drew the idea of using very large choral forces but delaying their full usage until the work’s finale. Most of Shakespeare’s subplots were eliminated to focus on the doomed lovers’ drama. About 60 percent of the score is for orchestra only, and the sole vocalist with a major role is Friar Lawrence, whose dramatic aria in the final section leads the warring families to reconcile.
4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, Lensic Performing Arts Center,211 W. San Francisco St., $22-$80, 505-983-1414, santafesymphony.org