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

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.

product_title=Berlioz: RomÈo et Juliette – Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the LSO at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Michael Tilson Thomas

Photo credit: Brandon Patoc