Muti Serves Up Berlioz and Shakespeare

United StatesUnited States Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), Dmitry Belosselskiy (bass), Chicago Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe (director), Riccardo Muti (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago. 8.4.2016. (JLZ)

Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette (1839)

Chicago audiences have heard regular performances of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (or selections), but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recent traversal of the score (part of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration) was impressive for its fresh take on this venerable work. While usually programmed without interruption, Muti included an intermission between the second and third parts, a gesture reminiscent of Lyric Opera’s recent production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, which also separated a hopeful beginning from a tragic conclusion.

The CSO itself was in great form from the start, with its rich, well-voiced sound resonating beautifully in Symphony Center. For the first part, the chorus and soloists were on the same stage, whereas in the scond, the chorus was placed above the orchestra. But in both sections, the struggles between the Montagues and Capulets were vivid—even operatic—thanks to the finely rehearsed chorus.

Ekatarina Gubanova was at times a commentator, sometimes a rhapsodist, especially when singing about Shakespeare’s genius in setting the story in verse. Gubanova’s rich mezzo-soprano was always clear and resonant, even in quieter passages. At times her French pronunciations were questionable, but her musical line was never an issue.

In his CSO debut, Paul Groves gave an intense account of the tenor line, and the “Queen Mab soliloquy” was a tour-de-force of rapid delivery and intense emotion. Groves was always in command, articulating French idiomatically and precisely, and with nuanced tone color. He sensed the innate drama—lacking sometimes elsewhere—and responded with a remarkable performance.

Unfortunately the audience was not ready for the Scherzo, applauding instead the slow movement, though it showed some of the CSO’s finest playing. Muti’s interpretation was somewhat studied, with the tempos slower than those of other conductors, lingering on pauses and sonorities for emphasis.

After intermission, the third part—the cantata-like scene for bass and chorus—is ostensibly Friar Laurence’s description of the marriage and death of Romeo and Juliet. Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy commanded the stage from the gallery behind the orchestra, and his deeply resonant bass (familiar from his Nabucco at the Civic Opera House) was appropriately powerful. At times, though, he seemed to strain and had pitch problems—not customary with him, and perhaps because of his placement in the hall. But these are minor quibbles that didn’t detract from his work as a whole, which was impressively fervent. The final passages were quite effective, with proper pacing and dynamic control, for a glorious conclusion.

James L. Zychowicz

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