Not strictly opera, but so full of the usual suspects . . . My experience of Berlioz's Dramatic Symphony Romeo et Juliette (R&J) came full circle last night at Boston's Symphony Hall. I had first heard the work live in 1968 when Charles Munch conducted the BSO and soloists Rosalind Elias, Jerold Siena and Donald Gramm. Parenthetically, that's 36 years ago, Ms. Elias's career was at least a dozen years old at the time and she's still singing in San Francisco's Vanessa and directing operas. Quite an achievement.
Last night James Levine conducted the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Matthew Polenzani and Julien Robbins in a superbly played and sung — and very personal vision — of R&J. In his program note Mr. Levine speaks of how much he loves Berlioz; how gratifying it is to play his music, particularly with America's most French repertory-oriented orchestra; how much Berlioz he will be scheduling with the orchestra in the near term; and how fresh and controversial the composer still is, even in France. While I have heard the work played ravishingly by other conductors, what distinguished this performance was that Levine took seriously the word "Dramatic."
The mezzo and tenor soloists do not portray the characters in R&J; she works with a chamber chorus as narrator and he sings the song of Queen Mab but otherwise does not in any represent Mercutio. The bass does, at the very end, recognizably portray Friar Laurence and the chorus takes the role of the Capulets and Montagues, but it's way to late in the game at that point to make a case for the piece as anything but a symphonic work. The love duets, the death scene and other big moments in the story are all orchestral and it is here that Levine chose to bring his operatic persona to the fore. This purely orchestral music was strongly characterized. The Ball at the Capulets had a festive air but with a strongly menacing undertone, a militant declaration that this was THE party being given by THE family. During the scene in the tomb, the sustained notes by the first clarinet went to the edge of acceptable tone to portray the agonized cries of the dying lovers. Under Levine's direction, string passages in the Introduction and in a couple of other places in the score very firmly pointed the way — in 1839 — to what Wagner would do in the great chromatic string passage that opens the mountain top scene at the end of Siegfried — music that Wagner was to write in the mid-1860s.
The Boston Symphony played magnificently, with some astonishing unanimity and virtuosity of string attack. Brass was rock solid and there was a sustained glow from the stage. The chorus enjoys the directorship of John Oliver and sounded like a French chorus on this occasion. I was delighted to discover a student of mine from a quarter of a century ago, one who used to build and rig scenery for our productions, singing in the bass section. Ms. Hunt Lieberson has always made absolute sense as a French mezzo and her claret-colored voice was in fine condition. Both she and Mr. Polenzani sang with the words well forward, floating ON the tone as is right for the style. His Queen Mab aria is a kind of rapid patter with pinpoint interjections by the chorus — it flew by as light as gossamer with bright, clear tone and complete confidence. Mr. Robbins was a noble, rich-voiced Laurence, his voice placed just a bit too far back in the mouth for ultimate clarity in French music, but in every other way he satisfied.
The audience was extremely enthusiastic.
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology