Guillermo Figueroa has been an advocate of the music of Hector Berlioz for decades, and in his time as the conductor of the Lynn Philharmonia, he’s pursued that advocacy with presentations of major works by the composer.
A season ago, it was the song cycle Les Nuits d’Éte, and on Feb. 25, it was his hard-to-classify “dramatic symphony,” Roméo et Juliette. Joined by three soloists and the Master Chorale of South Florida, Figueroa led an impressive, thoroughly creditable performance of this work, and in so doing, gave his student charges another milestone to refer to and to have taken part in.
This sprawling, seven-movement work from 1837 is modeled on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in a macro sense, most notably in its expansive slow movement and its choral finale with a baritone soloist. It also makes something of the same impression in that by the time we reach the finale, the listener is prepared to be taken somewhere new and momentous.
For the most part, the Philharmonia did a very fine job, tackling this work’s many complications and its unconventional language with aplomb and skill. As Figueroa noted to the nearly full house that Saturday night, Romeo and Juliet themselves never appear vocally in the work, but are referenced instrumentally. The piece is something of a commentary on the story as well as a depiction of it, which became clearer as the supertitles rolled by.
And so there was a lot riding on the orchestra, and they came through. With the sorry exception of some haphazard brass playing in the solemn chords of the sixth movement, this was a thoroughly polished reading of the piece, from the bustling string fugue at the beginning to the sweep and muscle of the finale. This year’s version of the Philharmonia has a powerful string complement, and there were enough of them to realize Berlioz’s vision, particularly in the Love Scene.
Figueroa is well-suited to be a Berlioz conductor; he clearly loves this music, and brought out as much of its drama as he could, delivering a broad, highly emotional reading of the love music, and trying to keep things as light as possible during the Queen Mab Scherzo. His tempos were a little slow in the faster sections, probably because things were still coming together, and that tended to give the whole piece more of a deliberate cast than it otherwise has.
Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Robinson was the soloist in the Introduction, returning to Berlioz after being the soloist in Lynn’s Les Nuits d’Éte. She has a darkly pretty voice that fit Berlioz’s rather static music well; it needs someone who can sustain a long line, and she did that well. Tenor Hector Manuel Mir, who sang Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech later in that movement, was not in particularly good voice that night. He sounded strained and out of his element, and the aria came off ineffectively.
But both singers don’t have a lot to do in this piece. Bass-baritone Adrian Smith did, however, and he was splendid in the finale. Leveraging excellent diction along with his big, bronze voice, he strode confidently to the apron of the stage and dominated the proceedings as Friar Laurence, invigorating the evening and driving the movement, and the work overall, to a forceful conclusion.
The Master Chorale of South Florida, well-trained by director Brett Karlin, did particularly well in that movement, riding off some of Smith’s energy, and in the extended contrapuntal textures of the fifth movement. They were somewhat challenged by the faster sections of the piece and the number of words they had to race through, but there were no calamities. Berlioz often uses the chorus as another orchestral color more than an independent singing ensemble, and in that sense, the Chorale fulfilled its role admirably.
This was a remarkably accomplished reading of Roméo et Juliette, a complex work with many moving parts that would simply not have been attempted at Lynn even five years ago. It’s not the easiest work to bring off, in part because of the way Berlioz wrote it: His grounding in the classical operatic spectacles of composers such as Gluck makes him attempt a kind of gravity that is at odds with his natural musical spontaneity, and the result can be awkward.
Making this happen took a great deal of preparation and work, and it showed. With another performance or two, there would have been some more effective pacing and greater subtlety overall. But in the aggregate, this was an exceptional evening at Lynn, and one that should mark another achievement higher up the ladder for this conservatory and for Figueroa, who pulled off something that by rights should have been too difficult to do.
Editor’s note: The posting of this review was delayed by technical difficulties.