Saturday, October 18, 2008

BERLIOZ Romeo et Juliette

Another squib from Sam Shirakawa --

Philadelphia Orchestra 16 October 2008

I never have understood why Berlioz composed Romeo et Juliette. I know, I know. It's a paean to the British actress who eventually became his wife. I understand too that he apparently was looking for a means of expressing transcendent longing by transcending every means he was using to express it.

Ah the French! Never tiring of searching for a way to say "fuck me" without actually saying it.

As a result, Beau Berlioz ended up with an entity that's never quite an adequate substitute for the actual sensation. Romeo et Juliette is frequently operatic but it is not an opera, it is short of a cantata but much too long on cant, it aspires to be a kind of a symphony but it remains bereft of... You get the idea: It's a mishmash. But it's a mishmash that left a searing impression on what Balzac called the "brains of Paris" at its wildly successful first performances in the autumn of 1839.

Love, as mentioned already, played a huge role in its composition: the composer's adoration of Shakespeare and the bard's play, as well as his passion for Harriet Smithson, the English actress with whom he fell in love, while witnessing her portrayal (in English) at the Odeon. All this made more remarkable by the realization that Berlioz' command of languages excluded English.

Odd too is the composer's use of a text by Emile Duchamps. Much of it is derived from a version of Romeo and Juliet that was popular at the time by the English actor and entrepreneur David Garrick. No matter how much sauce béchamel you may ladle on to it, Duchamps' text is trop liquide compared to the ambrosial verbal harmonies of the source material.

While the hot 'n' heavy passion Berlioz poured into what he called a "Dramatic Symphony" (what symphony should not be dramatic?) remains unmistakable in the score even today, it takes inspiration of a special sort to pull it off in performance -- the kind of oomph that Leopold Stokowski and even Eugene Ormandy were able to conjure up virtually at will when they were on the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra, where the work now is in the midst of a four-performance run in the City of Brotherly Love. For good or ill, the Orchestra has changed beyond recognition, and its current Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit is more intent upon laying wreaths in memory of Berlioz than on reviving the spirit of the music at its creation.

So the net-net impression left by the first performance in the current series of R & J at Verizon Hall was one of admiration rather than epiphany. Dutoit revealed the contours of this odd work efficiently, drawing some nice performances from the vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, but without uncorking the magic that palpably intoxicated its first audiences.

Berlioz assigned the bulk of the solo vocal line to the bass role of Friar Laurence, who appears toward the end of the work to exhort (at some length) the warring Capulets and Montagues to bury their hatchets. British baritone David Wilson-Johnson carried out his duty flawlessly, spinning out a fine cantilena, where there often was little melody to latch onto. Papa Laurence is a thankless role; I hope Wilson-Johnson received merit pay for flying in to do it.

I wondered if Rumanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Denose and American tenor Gregory Kunde (making his Orchestra debut) would be as good at story-telling if they had to speak their brief lines, instead of singing them. Churlish as it might be to say it, these parts offer these gifted artists little to chew on. I also wondered why Berlioz used these vocal parts for telling what happened rather than for enacting what took place. There are no soaring lines to speak of, no invocations to l'amour, no protracted expressions of longing. Some of that is left to the Philadelphia Singers Chorale under the direction of David Hayes, the rest is left to the Orchestra, both of which performed satisfactorily on 16 October.

I must admit I longed for Stoki's ghost to stoke some fire into the proceedings. There was hélas no sign of him, possibly because he never conducted the work with the Orchestra. In a few weeks one of the most underrated conductors of the 20th century is set to conduct Wagner with the Philadelphians. Stokowski, Ormandy et le auteur will surely be listening...

Performances of Romeo et Juliette continue on tonight and 21 October in Philadelphia.

Sam H. Shirakawa

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