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Reviews

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A lukewarm performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette from the LSO and Tilson Thomas

A double celebration was the occasion for a packed house at the Barbican: the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette - Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the LSO at the Barbican Hall

A review by David Truslove

Above: Michael Tilson Thomas

Photo credit: Brandon Patoc

 

If, over the course of this symphonie dramatique its cumulative impact didn’t quite bring that special thrill factor, there was much to appreciate in the extraordinary daring of the composer’s conception. There’s the originality of its orchestration (with much favour given to the cello section), the striking novelty of its choral recitative and the odd, uneven distribution of the vocal forces where two of the three soloists (who never sing together) only participate in Part One. For some, this might be considered a wilful lack of consideration for his singers, and not least there’s the reduction of Shakespeare’s play to scattered scenes - barely a narrative in any conventional sense. That the doomed lovers are musically evoked from within the orchestra is a masterstroke.

This performance did not have the most convincing start and subsequently the ensuing reimagining of the warring Montagues and Capulets felt a little earthbound, though the intervention of the Prince brought some majestic brass tone. A polished semi-chorus of 12 singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama brought wonderful transparency to the Prologue’s text, closely followed by a poised Alice Coote - positioned between two harps and second violins - for her singular and memorable contribution. Ideally cast for this cameo role, her fine delivery and creamy tone enriched the folk-like melody and perfectly caught the pains of young love amid soft summer breezes, the whole enlivened by shapely phrasing from a reduced cello section.

American tenor Nicholas Phan made a similarly brief appearance for his Queen Mab narration, sung with jewel-like tone and much scintillation from some nimble woodwind playing. Romeo’s solitary thoughts were nicely captured by the LSO strings and Olivier Stankiewicz’s expressive oboe also caught the ear in the Larghetto espressivo. The ensuing ball and the arrival of both Romeo’s and Juliet’s themes (one noble, the other playful) drew a riot of colour, brass and violins keenly responsive to Tilson Thomas’s animation. Returning party revellers (the gentlemen of the LSO chorus) sang deftly, if not quite conveying an image of cavorting youths saying their farewells. It’s a tiny quibble, and of no great import since the LSO players have this music in their bones (transfused into their collective bloodstream over the years via Colin Davis) and the Love Scene glowed with exquisite tenderness, while the secondary reference to Queen Mab was delightfully buoyant.

From this fantasy the action moves to the presumption of Juliet’s death (thanks to a sleeping potion) and the surrounding lament. If the Funeral Procession didn’t quite mesmerise, the ensuing tragedy was vividly fashioned, a haunting clarinet for Juliet’s awakening and an explosive orchestral response as both lovers take their lives. French bass Nicolas Courjal made the most of his dramatic role, initially woolly-toned as a guilt-ridden Friar Lawrence, later commanding in his assertion that Verona will be ‘great in history’. The London Symphony Chorus (as Montagues and Capulets) responded to his pleas for reconciliation with strength of tone and characterful intensity.

Overall, this was a performance that illuminated the richness of Berlioz’s imagination, if not his dramatic instincts.

David Truslove

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Nicolas Courjal (bass) Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Guildhall Singers, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London; Sunday 10th November 2019.

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