Over last weekend, the SF Symphony ended its 2016-17 season with some fireworks: a dazzling performance of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet. Like his Requiem, Romeo and Juliet is an odd bird, a choral symphony loosely following the path of Beethoven's ninth in bringing in a choral component, and even more loosely following the text of the Shakespeare play. It's the end of the season, but the performances will live on, as they were recorded for later release on the SFS Media label.
Written for a large orchestra and chorus, Romeo and Juliet features three singers, none of whom assumes the roles of the piece's namesakes. Berlioz explained thus: Many composers have written sung love duets for this pair, so why should he? His is a symphony first, and it's incumbent on the orchestra to capture the emotions in music. And it does so brightly, you almost don't need the program to follow what's going on.
Tenor Nicholas Phan thus gets to sing about Queen Mab, hardly the first character who comes to mind when you think of R&J. He did an outstanding job, bringing levity and humor combined with surprisingly perfect French diction. Sasha Cooke gets a slightly meatier part, where she gets to feature her sweet tone and to break the fourth wall and sing about Shakespeare's poetry.
It's bass Luca Pisaroni who scores the biggest part as Friar Lawrence, and in a deep voice, midwifes a ceasefire between the Capulets and the Montagues. He changed his tone to shift to the colors of the text, here upset when relating the mess of the lovers' death, there booming when speaking the voice of God, and majestuous in the final reconciliation. The chorus sang very cleanly, almost too perfectly and delicately when I expected a more ribald colors in a scene of revelers returning from a party.
Yet, the orchestra tells most of the story and with Berlioz's vivid textures and evocative melodies, there is no need for words. The heart of the piece is a melancholy love scene in a delicate and tender adagio. The long, lyrical and winding melody aches of desire, delaying its resolution for as long as it can. Combined with lush orchestral swells, you hear Wagner-before-Wagner (who admitted being impressed, and clearly was inspired, by the work).
Inventiveness drives the orchestration throughout: the party at the Capulets is scored for pizzicato cellos and tambourine, in a joyous dance, interfered with ominous trombones. The orchestra scherzo for Queen Mab features in a sweet barcarole that at some point includes two harps and bells, with the same eerie colors as the contemporary Midsummer Night Dream of Mendelssohn. The scoring is so brilliantly modern that the end of Juliet's funeral cortege, a heartbreaking lament sung by the chorus, ends on the flute repeating the same note over and again, bringing of all people Philip Glass (!) to mind.
MTT conducted with a clear attention to the details of the score, but with a sweep that kept the ninety-some minutes piece moving along and never once did he let our attention wane, from the vivacious viola opening to its last chapter, when the whole orchestra joins force in an exhilarating final burst. It's hard to imagine a more perfect symbol of togetherness and reconciliation than such large scale orchestral harmony.
The SF Opera concluded its season as well, inviting 23,000 to attend Don Giovanni at AT&T Park on Friday night. The chilly evening didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a swaggy Don, Erin Wall a strong Donna Anna, and Stanislas de Barbeyrac made us want for more in the smaller part of Don Ottavio. The set was however rather drab, with large frames hanging from the rafters, to inform us Giovanni is a self-absorbed narcissist. Luckily, we couldn't see much of it as it was shot and broadcast on the AT&T screen in mostly close-ups. SF Symphony and SF Opera both kick of their next season after Labor Day.