“STAR CROSS’D LOVERS:” WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, HARRIET SMITHSON AND HECTOR BERLIOZ,AND THE CONUNDRUM OF ROMÉO ET JULIETTE
Harriet Smithson began her theatrical career as a mediocre Irish actress seeking success in England. Ironically, she received stardom in Paris during an 1827 season of Shakespeare presented by a British troupe. During these performances, Smithson transformed her perceived weakness in recitation and singing into a successful performance of physical expressiveness and naturalism. Hector Berlioz was one of the many leaders of the Romantic Movement to witness Smithson’s portrayal of Ophelia in Hamlet and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Berlioz became obsessed with Smithson and composed the Symphonie fantastique with her as the inspiration for his “idée fixe.” Berlioz married Smithson six years later; however, the marriage proved to be unhappy, inspiring Berlioz to compose Roméo et Juliette.
Roméo et Juliette, misunderstood from its first performances as a literal reference to Shakespeare’s play, is an expression of Berlioz’s delusions of himself as Romeo and Smithson as his Juliet. It is through the portrayal of himself and Smithson in the guise of Romeo and Juliet that Berlioz is able to remember the intensity of their early love, and mourn the death of their romantic relationship. Four sections from Roméo et Juliette are analyzed and interpreted as a personal portrayal of the ultimately tragic Berlioz-Smithson romance. A survey of the many revolutionary techniques employed by Berlioz and the influence of Roméo et Juliette on the development of music is examined.