Berlioz, Gounod and Prokofiev Take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at 
Al Bustan Festival

Nélida Nassar   02.26.2016

The seven parts choral symphony Romeo and Juliet is a hybrid piece that was performed at the Al Bustan Festival yesterday evening. The University St Joseph Jesuit Church was filled to capacity by an enthusiastic public undoubtedly drawn to the love story plot and the French singing program.

Ensconced in Parisian tradition in his inimitable musical persona, Berlioz the wild man of early Romantic music has too often been viewed as a singular and even eccentric sideshow to the mainstream musical developments of German cities well to the East. But his contributions 
were indeed remarkable. His under-performed and unjustly neglected Romeo and Juliette is in many ways an artistic and musical center-stone in his oeuvre. It is an homage to the genius 
of Shakespeare, who Berlioz discovered in 1827 and that had such a profound effect on his artistic development.

This colossal concert opéra has many tricky tunes at sight and is structured, emotional musically and – as much as its symphonic form will allow – dramatically. A miraculous work, full of glorious music that the conductor Gianluca Marciano attempted to imaginatively orchestrate. Indeed, aside from the influence on Liszt and Wagner, one discerns Berliozian elements in certain works of Tchaikovsky (Symphonie Manfred), Mahler (Second Symphony’s Scherzo) and even Verdi (Fairy Sequence in the last act of Falstaff) to name but a few.

An awkward piece to perform as it asks for large forces which are only rarely used altogether and then only intermittently. The orchestra was the principal star in this work, as befits the composer’s intention, but it is not quite the same sort of “choral symphony” as Beethoven’s Ninth or Liszt’s Faust symphony or any of Mahler’s choral symphonies.
The voices are part of the orchestra in this work, and it is the Al Bustan orchestra which conveyed the storyline, the moods, the very characters of all of the protagonists.

Under the direction of Father Toufic Maatouk, the festival’s assistant conductor two choruses one small sung by the men and one large remained offstage except for the movements in which they actually sang. They performed melodically from the opening fugato as the vocal forces were used sparingly throughout. The massed ensemble all coming together and fully deployed for a beautiful conclusion in the finale.

Mezzo-Soprano Irina Makanrova’s clear diction and sweet tone in her recitative was elegantly accompanied by the melodious harp, chosen by Berlioz as a stand-in for the harpsichord or fortepiano. Sergey Romanovsky’s light tenor with fine diction captured Mercutio’s raillery. Their brief respective roles hardly allowed them any particular presence in the greater dramatic fabric.

The bass-baritone Felipe Bou as Friar Lawrence did not appear until the finale, but there he has a much larger, more “operatic” role as Berlioz builds to a grandiose conclusion. Friar Laurence and the Chorus shape the scene from marveling at Romeo’s appearance in Juliet’s tomb and learning of their secret marriage to lamenting the deaths and finally being aroused to end the ancestral family – Montagues and Capulets – hatred that brought about the tragedy.

Marciano chose to perform Romeo and Juliet without intermission, which makes for a rather long sit, but keeps the musical and dramatic flow moving forward in glorious harmony, color, and rhythm. The delicious Queen Mab scherzo was feather-light but crisp and clean. The absence of some instruments as the score calls for limited the contemporary orchestra’s capabilities, in terms of programmatic scope and individual virtuosity. The music also contains ideas that can only really work with a full operatic staging; the fifth-movement mourners’ chorus Jetez les fleurs cries out for costume, motion, and gesture of the kind a static symphony chorus cannot, by definition, provide that were missed, as not part of this performance.

The evening proceeded with Gounod version of Romeo and Juliet. Much of Shakespeare’s poetry is gone from the Gounod as he and his contemporaries had pared it down to the essentials – because they were working for a Paris theater – replaced English with French. Marciano reduced the opera from three-plus hours to just 30 minutes – by cutting almost everything except 2 solos one for the soprano and another for the tenor – made a nonsense of the plot and cheated the public of some of the score’s best music especially that few of the best duets the opera is famous for such as the Balcony Duo. The adagio Love Scene the greatest single piece of music written in the western classical canon was thoroughly missed. It’s magnificent on its own terms but the lead-in by the dying out song of the revelers returning home is incomparable and was omitted as well.

Though it spared us having to listen to the execrable orchestra’s performance of this piece and for soprano Samar Salamé and tenor Sergey Romanovsky, massacring the music any more than was absolutely necessary. Marciano’s direction did not have the Al Bustan orchestra sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance.

To understand how wrong-headed Gounod’s opera is one need only listen to the power, majesty and brilliant emotional clarity of Prokofiev’s Suite No. 2 for Romeo and Juliet. It tells the story Shakespeare wanted told. While we were looking forward to hearing the suite it was simply taken off the program without any explanation. Was the concert already too long for the public to follow it in its entirety? Considering Lebanon and its neighboring countries difficult political situation, Al Bustan Festival remains an oasis of civility but sadly, the evening fizzled out on a hasty, abrupt and sour note…