Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Sing Me to Sleep

October 23, 2010

Chalres Dutoit, Jonathan Lemalu and the L.A. Philharmonic Photo: mine 2010

There’s more Shakespeare in Los Angeles this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall where Charles Dutoit arrived for the first guest conductor spot of the season with a performance of Hector Berlioz’ choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette. Composed in 1839, it was one of Berlioz’ love letters to Shakespeare, that particular exercise common to just about every major Romantic composer of the 19th Century. In fact, Roméo et Juliette is perhaps Berlioz at his floweriest, with sweet smelling bouquets of melody at every turn. Of course, this being Berlioz, the symphony has a number of little catches that make it just that much more off-kilter and, in my opinion, quite admirable. There’s a certain modernity to the work, in that Berlioz elected not to set the entire narrative, nor did he stick faithfully to Shakespeare’s narrative. There a huge reconciliation scene at the end where Friar Lawrence, sung here by baritone Jonathan Lemalu, leads the chorus of Montagues and Capulets in an oath of reconciliation after the deaths of the young lovers. Beyond this, Berlioz only utilized soloists in the work for bit parts. In addition to Lemalu, Lauren McNeese and tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt appeared briefly in the first section as other minor characters who often don’t deliver dialog as much as provide commentary on the unseen action at times. All of the talking between Romeo and Juliet is done by the orchestra, which seems appropriate. Berlioz’ pointed out this tactic helped to underline that this piece is not an opera but something different.

But, while Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette can feel like an oddity on paper to modern eyes, it certainly didn’t sound like one on Friday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale. Dutoit has given many wonderful performances here in Los Angeles in recent years. He has a light touch and was careful not to overpower this most Romantic of French works. But maybe he should have been a little heavier handed. While the singing and playing by everyone involved was lovely, it was a fairly sleepy performance. There was little drive from on segment to the next as if every phrase was accompanied by a heavy sigh. The piece calls for a huge orchestra and (double) chorus by the standards of Berlioz’ day. And yet rarely are everyone’s engines firing at the same time. There were a couple of moments in Part One where the typically wonderful Fouchécourt seemed a bit out of sync with Dutoit and the orchestra. It would be unfair to say however, that this wasn’t an evening of lovely music. It just wasn’t an exceptionally exciting, edge of your seat one.


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