Muti, CSO give elegant advocacy to Berlioz’s bizarro “Romeo and Juliet”

Fri Apr 08, 2016 at 4:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Chorus and soloists in Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Chorus and soloists in Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Is there a more structurally ramshackle work in the concert repertory than Hector Berlioz’s Romeo and JulietBerlioz eventually settled on calling his sprawling Shakespearean adaptation a symphonie dramatique, which is about as apt a description as any.

Neither fish nor fowl, opera nor vocal symphony, Romeo and Juliet remains an unwieldy, discursive and frustrating work. Extended orchestral sections alternate with vocal solos and choruses with no coherent scheme or narrative consistency. Berlioz might as well have called this work Friar Laurence since the monk gets twice as much music to sing as the other two soloists. The tenor’s brief moment is over as quickly as it begins and the mezzo narrator likewise vanishes after intermission. Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish symphony seems almost disciplined by comparison.

Yet there is much glorious music in this shaggy melange and pulling it together  is  the kind of challenge that benefits from Riccardo Muti’s close and concentrated advocacy.

Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert marked Muti’s first local appearance in four months and since a fall and hip surgery in January, which led him to cancel his February CSO weeks.

Lest there be any doubt about the maestro’s health, Muti showed himself as fully engaged and vigorous a podium presence as ever in his first of three April weeks of programs. The conductor was in grimly determined mode, getting right down to business, and quickly stifling a brief burst of premature audience applause with a wave behind his back without turning around.

This is clearly a score that the CSO music director believes in and, even if Romeo and Juliet adds up to less than the sum of its parts,  those parts were so gloriously played Thursday night it was hard to resist.

Muti brought expected vitality to the flamboyant sections, as with the crackling drive of the strings in the Introduction and the leaping energy of the Capulets’ party music. He consistently underlined the quirky exuberant weirdness of Berlioz’s singular scoring, as with a deliciously effervescent Queen Mab Scherzo.

Yet most striking was the subtlety of hues and coloring revealed in this performance. While lesser hands rely on speed and volume, allowing Berlioz’s brass writing to blare, Muti led a performance that reveled in pastels and finely calibrated dynamic and expressive details. The orchestra responded with wonderfully elegant and refined contributions, particularly clarinetist Stephen Williamson, guest flutist Lorna McGhee, principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and guest oboe Ariana Ghez, principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The vocal soloists’ contributions were largely on the same level. In what must be the easiest check for tenors in the concert repertory, Paul Groves threw off a delightfully fleet and capricious Scherzetto in his only appearance, backed by equally nimble woodwinds.

Ekaterina Gubanova brought a low smoky voice to the narrative sections of the first two parts, though enunciation could have been crisper and expression more varied. (The Russian mezzo will return next season to sing the role of Carmen at Lyric Opera.)

Dmitry Belosselskiy made an impressive Lyric debut earlier this year as the prophet Zaccaria in Lyric’s Nabucco, and as Friar Laurence  he proved just as formidable.

Singing from the center of the terrace amid the chorus, Belosselskiy brought an imposing, sonorous bass and patriarchal authority to his denunciations of the Montagues and Capulets for their bitter enmity and the death their conflict has caused. In the concluding “Oath of reconciliation” Belosselskiy sang with expressive force and cumulative impact in his plea to the warring Verona clans to end their hatred and bloodshed–a sentiment one wished would permeate the walls of Orchestra Hall to the violent, troubled streets of Chicago at large.

In their various theatrical deployments–a small ensemble onstage, antiphonal choirs offstage and, finally, full double chorus in the terrace–the CSO Chorus offered consistently polished and well-blended singing under Duain Wolfe’s direction.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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4 Responses to “Muti, CSO give elegant advocacy to Berlioz’s bizarro “Romeo and Juliet””

  1. Posted Apr 09, 2016 at 12:08 am by Jacob Hildner

    In partial defense of Berlioz’s unusual setting, I like the emphasis on the final shaming of the warring clans and their reconciliation — omitted entirely in Gounod’s opera and often seen as an afterthought in discussions of the play.

    Romeo and Juliet is a great story, maybe the greatest ever told, not only because of its timeless portrayal of the full flush of romantic love (which, to a modern, skeptical sensibility, can seem like a little too much protesting), but because it’s about fundamental human urges in conflict. it’s basically *the*human story — love vs. hate. It’s a tragedy, because hate wins, as it so often has done and continues to do, but there’s hope, a saving grace, a promise of moral progress: everyone feels really bad about it at the end.

    At the end of tonight’s performance, Muti was wiping away some tears, and so was I, and, in my case, it was because Berlioz gave this ever-relevant sentiment, and key element of the story, such stirring advocacy, and because the performers did likewise.

  2. Posted Apr 09, 2016 at 10:01 am by Alan Goldberg

    Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet is a “shaggy melange?” Have you mistaken originality for structural incoherence? Philip Huscher’s program note for these performances make a compelling case for the notion that Berlioz, in using diverse musical resources and changing points of view, was way ahead of his time. I have always loved the work, and have loved the fact that one cannot pigeonhole it.

    True, there are a few moments — very few — where Berlioz stretches out an idea excessively and one’s attention wanders, but that can be said of many masterworks by other composers. And in a performance as compelling as that by Muti and the CSO (I saw the Friday night performance), one is struck by the overwhelming beauty of the writing for the choruses and the vocal soloists. So much is being missed by those who only know the orchestral sections.

    By the way, thank you, Mr. Johnson, for mentioning the beautiful work by the guest oboe soloist, who (judging by your comments and by her magnificent work on Friday night), may have been the subject of some unwarranted criticism by another critic. And the CSO’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson, was astounding in depicting Juliet’s awakening — I have never heard a clarinet played more softly and subtly.

  3. Posted Apr 20, 2016 at 6:40 pm by David H Spence

    Will any of this series of performances be incarnated on the CSO Resound series? The acclaim these performances have received seem to call for this to happen, as with the Opus 14 released last year. As shaggy a masterpiece Romeo et Juliette is, it is the one setting of the Shakespeare that makes something new out of the dramatic work, as opposed to being merely illustrative of it, as brilliant at it as Gounod, inspired by the Berlioz, and the two following Russians are. Music continues in the Berlioz where the words leave off or can say no more, and by ‘dramatic symphony’, this is in a way exactly what Berlioz meant.

  4. Posted Dec 18, 2016 at 12:28 pm by Atif

    Is there any video of romeo juliette by hector berlioz conducted Riccardo Muti?

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