The Grant Park Music Festival, by now in full swing, presented an irresistible program Friday night with Hector Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony” treatment of Shakespeare’s doomed romance. No shortage of musical treatment of Romeo and Juliet exists before and after Berlioz, most notably by Bellini, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev (though many others exist), but the great French Romantic’s over 100-minute composition is the finest work based on the play.
The work is a unique hybrid using vocal soloists and chorus which falls somewhere between oratorio, symphony, and opera but defies any of those categories. In any case, Romeo and Juliet is yet another example of the inspiration found in great drama and literature that fueled so much of Berlioz’s work; it is also, like the Symphonie Fantastique, a work inspired by the English Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz passionately courted and eventually married. Romeo and Juliet is a work whose near-continuous melodic line and unique combination of the Romantic idiom and the je ne sais quoi that distinguishes Berlioz from even his talented contemporaries make his work seem novel and innovative even today.
A conflict with the Chicago Blues Festival forced the concert inside to the Auditorium Theatre, a felicitous circumstance which turned the spotlight on one of Chicago’s most spectacular venues, an architectural marvel. The theatre (which has Berlioz’s name etched into the proscenium) has slightly distant acoustics, but revealed every orchestral detail unobtrusively.
The balanced sound must also be attributed to the musicians, led by conductor Carlos Kalmar, who sensitively guided the score, which, like so much of Berlioz’s music outside of the Symphony Fantastique, is far too intermittently played. In the opening orchestral sections, the Grant Park Orchestra’s violins produced a well-burnished sound, while the cellos’ dark colors provided a complimentary foil in the heartbreakingly beautiful score which casts an ominous pallor over the lovers represented. The prominently featured winds included Berlioz’s ubiquitous flutes, who sustained their line for nearly the entire piece, but special recognition must go to principal oboe Nathan Mills, whose limpid solo in the first half of the program was accompanied by a faint, haunting tambourine that reinforced the doom in the music.
The vocal parts, mercifully, do not get much in the way of the orchestral playing in the first portion of the program, but French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne demonstrated ample technical gifts though her delivery was impersonal, understandable given the non-staged, concert format. Tenor Paul Appelby (and for that matter Boulianne) did not have much to do, so their turns amounted to little more than cameos. More prominent (and quite a coup) was the performance of Eric Owens, whose recent engagements with the Lyric Opera and Symphony Center, now the GPMF, suggest that he ought to look into part-time residence in Chicago. In any case, Owens was in good voice for the meatier solo part of Friar Lawrence in the latter portion of the concert, but he was hamstrung by some low notes and overwhelmed by the orchestra, though unsurprisingly, he was a more commanding dramatic presence than the other soloists. The chorus fared much better; as in Berlioz’s Requiem, the composer seems to sacrifice clarity of words for a mirthful sound, but the chorus handled this difficult task well.
The most impressive accolades, however, must belong to the orchestra, who handled the scherzo that opened the second portion of the concert with a light, airy dance, an oddly light scoring to depict Juliet’s death, but Berlioz quickly provides counterpoint by introducing a scary, ominous feel, a gift for portraying the nocturnal that he also shows in the “Royal Chase and Hunt” in Les Troyens and the “Scene in the Country” of the Symphonie Fantastique. The inventive wind scoring continued, notably featuring a lonely clarinet solo, a lamentation that was arrhythmic and unpredictably scored, an audacious move for a Romantic composer. Kalmar led the orchestra to a powerful conclusion that nevertheless avoided any histrionics.
After this performance of Romeo and Juliet, it’s easy to see why anyone would think enough to include Berlioz’s name among the composers exalted enough to be carved into a proscenium. If this piece has been neglected, it is the fault of musicians who somehow neglect Berlioz’s mastery and not of unresponsive audiences, which would not describe Friday night’s audience. It was one of the best classical concerts given in Chicago this year.