miércoles, agosto 03, 2016

“Roméo et Juliette”: the Berlioz masterpiece finally returns

         1973, a  terrible year: four presidents, turmoil. And the Colón reprograms after the well-founded resignation of Enzo Valenti Ferro (the Mayor had closed down arbitrarily the German season). Antonio Pini was the new Artistic Director, and I his assistant. Along with the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, Pedro Calderón, we programmed a rich season with eminent conductors and valid premières. In August Pini was summarily fired and the successors played havoc on the Phil´s programming. But in June and July we had Serge Baudo and Vaclav Smetácek.

            You may wonder, why this bit of history? Because it is relevant to the purpose of this article. Years before I was bowled over by the revelation of "Roméo et Juliette" by Hector Berlioz in the splendid interpretation on record by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony. I knew that Baudo was a specialist on this composer (he ran the Lyons Berlioz festival), so I telexed him asking if he wanted to première the complete "Roméo" (only symphonic fragments had been played here); he accepted enthusiastically, and the première became the highlight of the symphonic year. I keep as a treasure my Eulenburg score : "En toute amitié" ("With all friedship"), Serge Baudo, 28.5.73.

            A particular homage to Jorge Fontenla, now in his eighties: always a noble server of music as pianist, composer and conductor, some months before the Baudo event Fontenla premièred "Roméo" in Argentina with the Cuyo University Symphony; and he had the bonhomie of lending the orchestral parts to the Phil for the Baudo preformances.

            We had to wait 43 years before an artist and a programmer decided that it was high time to let this generation hear live one of the great works of Romanticism. Facundo Agustín, an Argentine working in Switzerland, showed his mettle last year in Britten´s "War Requiem", so we knew that he was technically capable of the arduous commitment, for "Roméo" is very difficult; and Ciro Ciliberto, the National  Symphony´s programmer, has proved his knowledge of the repertoire many times. A big thanks to both.

            "Roméo et Juliette" was called by the composer "dramatic symphony"; with words by Émile Deschamps derived from the Shakespeare tragedy, Berlioz conducted it at the Paris Conservatory November 24, 1839. The dedication is to Nicolò Paganini. It is, in words of its creator, "neither an opera in concert form nor a cantata, but a symphony with chorus" (and soloists). "The symphony has a general plan of four movements with a Prologue as a vocal introduction to the first" (John Burk).

            Berlioz, the quintessential Romantic, mixed life with creation  and nowhere was it more evident than in "Roméo et Juliette", for he fell in love with actress Harriet Smithson playing Juliet and  married her!  A Shakespeare fan, he also wrote the overture "King Lear" and his opera "Béatrice et Bénédict" based on "Much Ado About Nothing".

            "Roméo et Juliette" is his Op.17 and lasts about 95 minutes. There´s nothing like it in the repertoire: Berlioz was a true visionary, with no antecedent and no followers. Many believe that giantism in symphonic music is a thing of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, but they forget Berlioz: he asks for 250 performers, including three choirs, and his orchestration is ample and innovative. His aural imagination is limitless and the intensity of his expression has no rivals in French music.

            Each piece has titles that explain their content; thus, the Introduction at the very beginning depicts in fugato form the combats of Capulets and Montagus, the ensuing tumult and the intervention of the Prince. The soloists are a contralto that sings of the vows of the lovers, a scintillating Scherzetto for the tenor (Mercutio´s Queen Mab speech), and especially Friar Lawrence with his strong plea in the Finale for reconciliation. The choirs can be recitatives, light revelry in the distance, or powerful vocal battles.

             The jewels are purely symphonic: the Introduction, "Romeo alone- Sadness- the Capulets´ Ball", the "Love scene" (the composer´s favorite), the marvelous Queen Mab Scherzo with uncanny orchestral effects, and the huge contrasts of "Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets".  French orchestral music won´t produce scores of this quality until the arrival of Debussy and Ravel.

            Fortunately the work was presented twice at the Blue Whale, July 27 and 29; I went to the first date; it was a success with the packed audience. Agudín got a notable performannce out of a concentrated National Symphony, with close respect for every indication in the score; his temperament is contained and I missed the whitehot intensity of Munch, but it was clean and precise. Not only some soloists were fine (the oboist Andrés Spiller) but, e.g., it was a pleasure to hear the first violins  play with such unanimity in perfect tune.

            The Coro Polifónico Nacional was this time prepared by an Argentine who lives in France, Ariel Alonso; he distributed the choirs at the back of the orchestra and at the laterals, and a small group was with the orchestra on the right side. The results were uneven but the best moments were satisfactory.

            Hernán Iturralde was a first-rate Friar Lawrence, sung with magisterial command and fine French. Alejandra Malvino did her "Strophes" musically and Ricardo González Dorrego negotiated his tricky Scherzetto with skill.

            A serious blot: no comments on the score in tha hand programme, and no supertitles!

For Buenos Aires Herald

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