The first musical expedition into psychedelia



An important piece from the early Romantic period, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (An Episode in the Life of an Artist in Five Parts) received its première at the Paris Conservatoire on 5th December 1830. Three years later Franz Liszt made a piano transcription of it while Leonard Bernstein commented: ‘Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.’ He further commented that Symphonie fantastique was the first musical expedition into psychedelia because of its hallucinatory and dream-like nature. It’s more than probable that Berlioz composed parts of the work whilst under the influence of opium.

A year after writing Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz (the son of a country doctor who arrived in Paris in 1821 at the age of 18) wrote a lesser-known sequel to the work entitled Lélio for actor, chorus and orchestra. I’m wondering, therefore, whether this work influenced the theatre-like staging that Nicholas Collon conceived with his inspiring creative team comprising Jane Mitchell and James Bonas (stage directors), Kate Wicks (production designer), Will Reynolds (consultant designer) and Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (movement consultant) whilst the overall concept and script sprung from the bright and inventive mind of Jane Mitchell.

Looking fit, youthful and mirroring the image of Berlioz particularly with regard to his wild-looking locks but stylised hairstyle, Nicholas Collon took charge of a remarkable performance brilliantly performed by the young and energetic players of the Aurora Orchestra (so confidently led by Maia Cabeza) playing from memory in a standing position thereby rivalling the packed battalion of Promenaders in the hall’s famous arena whilst English-born actor, Mathew Baynton (well-known as a member of the Horrible Histories troupe) passionately (and sometimes amusingly) strutted about the stage in casual gear delivering text taken from the memoirs of Berlioz while also adding a brief sketch to each of the work’s five movements as a curtain-raiser.

Berlioz was inspired to write Symphonie fantastique as a way of expressing his unrequited love with the young Irish-born actress, Harriet Smithson, after seeing her perform the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Paris in September 1827. He bombarded her with a host of love-letters but all went unanswered. When she finally left Paris, they had still not met. 

Although she didn’t attend the première of Symphonie fantastique, Ms Smithson realised Berlioz’s genius after hearing the work in 1832. The couple finally met soon afterwards and married the following year. However, their marriage became increasingly bitter and they eventually separated after several years of unhappiness. Upon her death, Liszt penned the following words to Berlioz: ‘She inspired you, you loved her, you sung of her and, therefore, her task was complete."

A marvellous and fulfilling work, this innovative and well-crafted staged performance of Symphonie fantastique was well presented with the stage movement made relatively easy by a standing band discarding, of course, the need for music-stands. For instance, in the 2nd movement (the ball scene) four harps were quietly wheeled to the front of the stage while the climax to this scene engaged the hall’s starry glitter-ball fleetingly turning the grand old place into a grand ballroom much to a surprised (but delighted) audience.

The following scene (Scene in the Country) added yet more drama to the overall stage plan by the placing at front of stage the cor anglais player strategically opposite the oboist situated at the back of the hall immediately behind the Promenaders enjoying a ‘conversation’ with each other whilst the 4th scene (March to the Scaffold) a couple of military-clad drummers slowly appeared from the ranks of the orchestra to line up either side of the stage with their ceremonial marching drums offering the necessary drum-roll to the sinister and thunderous march to the scaffold.

Visually speaking, though, the final movement (Dream of a Sabbath Night) would take some beating inasmuch as all of the members of the orchestra wore a variety of white-painted animal masks for the pagan-like ritual of the Witches’ Sabbath. Catching my fancy was the group adorned with a set of deer antlers. And to cap this orgiastic scene, the stage (and the hall in general) was flooded in a swathe of fiery-red lighting. A dramatic effect to a dramatic ending which, I feel, sums up the composer’s love-torn life which could be well described as dramatic as his work especially in the case of Symphonie fantastique. 

This Prom was truly fantastic and one that a full house took to their hearts offering the performers an extended standing ovation that I’ve never experienced at the Royal Albert Hall before. Bravo!

Programme: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique

Performers/creative team: Aurora Orchestra (Nicholas Collon, conductor), Mathew Baynton (actor), Jane Mitchell / James Bonas (stage directors), Kate Wicks (production designer), Will Reynolds (consultant designer), Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (movement consultant), concept and script (Jane Mitchell)

Tony Cooper



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