I’ll never forget Riccardo Muti’s inaugural concerts as music director of the Chicago Symphony during which he delivered a revelatory performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique paired with Lélio, its rarely heard sequel. While Berlioz is not a composer one might immediately associate with Muti, those concerts proved him to be a Berlioz interpreter of the highest order, and I’ve been eager to hear more from his baton ever since. Thursday night was just that in the epic Roméo et Juliette, with the maestro returning in full form after having to cancel his February appearances due to injury. Muti is devoting his April residency to commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – next week includes two of Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean tone poems, and matters culminate with a concert performance of Verdi’s great opera Falstaff.

Ekaterina Gubanova and the CSO © Todd Rosenberg
Ekaterina Gubanova and the CSO
© Todd Rosenberg

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is a work that resists – and defies – categorization. Dubbed a symphonie dramatique, its sprawling seven movements and scoring for chorus and three soloists hardly resembles any symphony that preceded or followed. It’s also utterly unstageable as an opera – in the Romantic fashion, Berlioz and librettist Émile Deschamps cherrypick only the source play’s most dramatic scenes, in stark contrast to the unity of time and place favored by the French Enlightenment. In addition, all soloists except the bass convey commentary rather than portray characters. Instead of a straightforward narrative, the works embodies a fantastical dreamworld and an opiate meditation on Shakespeare.

The work begins appropriately enough with the orchestra depicting the tumult between the two feuding families, Muti vividly bringing to life the bustling commotion in the streets of Verona. Sounding like a heavenly church choir, the semi-chorus provided some loose narration. In the strophes, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova gorgeously sang of the pains of first love, and even mentions Shakespeare by name, speaking as more of an outside critic than a character from within. Tenor Paul Groves had an impressive showing in the scherzetto which anticipates the famous Queen Mab Scherzo.

“Roméo seul” is a scene of Berlioz’s own inspiration, portraying Romeo as a brooding, Byronic hero. Juliet enters by way of the oboe, given this evening by Ariana Ghez of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and matters lead to a lively and festive dance. The third movement featured the otherworldly effect of the offstage chorus and was centered on a lush love scene – the standout here was flutist Lorna McGhee, guesting from the Pittsburgh Symphony. The evanescent Queen Mab Scherzo follows, itself the work’s most well-known orchestral excerpt. Gossamer, featherlight textures were contrasted with the hypnotic effect of the sustained high strings.

Though Berlioz may not have intended for the drama to be broken by an intermission, this was the logical place for the one that was taken as the final part is markedly different from the preceding. Here the full chorus is used, placed in the terrace above the stage, and all solo duties are assumed by the bass who portrays Friar Laurence, the only character given a vocal role. Muti’s operatic sense of drama and pacing was in full force as even the most convoluted of ideas seemed entirely logical, and the disparate sections had remarkable coherence.

Dmitry Belosselskiy and the Chicago Symphony Chorus © Todd Rosenberg
Dmitry Belosselskiy and the Chicago Symphony Chorus
© Todd Rosenberg

The somber resounding of the cellos gave Convoi funèbre de Juliette a chilling solemnity. The play’s tragic, if inevitable, ending is depicted in the penultimate movement, and it was miraculous what could be achieved in the orchestra alone in the search for meaning beyond mere words. Berlioz based the work on the significantly revised version of the play by David Garrick (as did Gounod in his opera), which affords the couple one final moment together before succumbing to the poison. Skeletal, recitative-like gestures invoke Beethoven’s final symphony, the only other work in Berlioz’s day that so brilliantly meshed orchestra, choir and soloists. Romeo is depicted in the low strings, pulling one down to the grave, and Juliet’s coming back to life is portrayed in the high registers of the oboe. The orchestra imitates the drama in nearly cinematic detail, well ahead of its time.

Matters aren’t over just yet, however, as the last movement involves a reconciliation between the two families, once again taking cue from Garrick’s text. Dmitry Belosselskiy’s booming bass was the most impressive of the soloists, and as Friar Laurence he revealed his naïve but well-intentioned plan to the families, and urged them to bury the hatchet. The shining CSO brass were resplendent in the final moments, bringing this epic piece to a vividly dramatic close.

****1