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OSM Illuminates Roméo et Juliette

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
09/11/2014 -  & September 10, 2014
Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17
Clémentine Margaine (mezzo-soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor), Nicolas Testé (bass-baritone)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and the Chœur de l’OSM, Kent Nagano (Conductor)

(Courtesy of OSM)

Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) opened their 2014-15 season with an illuminating and at times riveting performance of Berlioz’s ambitious “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette.

This was no easy task. Rather than a direct retelling of Shakespeare’s play, Berlioz cherry-picked certain scenes—even changed some—and used the orchestra rather than the choruses and soloists as the principal portrayer and driver of the action. It is also a long (roughly 100 minutes) and complex composition with many moods and colors. Berlioz was following on the heels of Beethoven (especially his Ninth Symphony) and wanted to prove that he could expand the musical landscape. This he did, not in the traditional symphonic four-movement format, but in a three-part hybrid, each with subsections, that resembles part symphony, part oratorio. (Wagner was in the audience for the premiere in 1839, and as a nod to Berlioz, used some of the motifs from Roméo et Juliette in Tristan und Isolde.)

Particularly challenging are the long, slow passages—such as the night scene, the slow dirge of Juliet’s funeral and Romeo in the family vault of the Capulets—which in less capable hands can drag and become tedious. Nagano and the OSM succeeded brilliantly, however, not only in sustaining tension and interest, but in revealing almost “Proustian tableaux” with nuance, expressivity and depth.

Equally impressive were the lively fugal introduction, the festive ball scene, the frenzied agony of the lovers and the riveting climax. Although there was messy and lacklustre playing from the horns (which were also difficult to hear from our positions in the acoustically-capricious hall), the trombones and trumpets never sounded better. Theodore Baskin’s oboe solo was solid and evenly shaped, with warm, rhythmic support from the orchestra.

Although billed as a baritone in the program, Nicolas Testé is a bass-baritone. His interpretation of Friar Laurence was majestic and mesmerizing. The superb mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine sang with melancholic longing and tenderness. Tenor Isaiah Bell was fine as Romeo. The small chorus in the prologue and the full Chœur de l’OSM in the climax, prepared by chorus master Andrew Megill, were first rate.

Earl Arthur Love



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