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Music review: Charles Dutoit conducts Berlioz's 'Romeo et Juliette'

October 23, 2010 |  2:34 pm

DutoitThe Los Angeles Philharmonic performed an eccentric evening-length French symphony Friday night, a work it hadn’t played since 1997. A week earlier, the orchestra had another Walt Disney Concert Hall first –- an eccentric evening-length French symphony, one it last performed in 1996.

Both works, Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette” (which Charles Dutoit conducted Friday) and Messiaen’s “Turangalila” Symphony (which Gustavo Dudamel led the previous weekend), contain 10 sections. The similarities don’t end there. Messiaen had been inspired by the Tristan and Isolde myth for a revolutionary romantic extravaganza intended for his muse, a pianist. Berlioz, having fallen for an English Shakespearean actress, turned to that other pair of legendary lovers.

The audacity of Berlioz’s revolutionary romantic extravaganza, written in 1839, 110 years before the premiere of “Turangalila,” came through very well Friday in Dutoit’s lucid, cogent performance. The composer tells Shakespeare’s story inventively. A chorus serves as the unusual narrator. A mezzo-soprano interrupts the tale early on to sing an exquisite little song on the nature of love. A tenor, accompanied by a small choir, sings a deft aria describing Queen Mab.

The orchestra is used alone for the big dramatic scenes, such as the street melees, the Capulet ball, the great love scene (the symphony’s longest and most famous movement), a scherzo for Queen Mab and Juliet's funeral.

The symphony then ends as a cantata, with a crowd scene and a grand oration and mesmerizing oath of reconciliation by Friar Laurence. The length is nearly 100 minutes. To get an idea of just how inventive Berlioz’s structure was, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its groundbreaking choral finale, was just 15 years earlier. The four-movement symphony itself had been around only for half a century.

What this symphonie dramatique, as Berlioz called it, really was was a new kind of musical theater. The story is cleverly told. The scuffling, fugal music of the Capulet-Montague brawl in the Introduction, for instance, is broken up by a somber trombone recitative, clearly the peacekeeping Prince of Verona. But this is also Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Shakespeare, the composer momentarily awakened Juliet after Romeo had taken poison, all the better for a wrenching, melodramatic death scene in the orchestra.

Dutoit is a Berlioz specialist, and he laid everything out with care. Removing some of supple sweetness and excitability of Dudamel’s “Turangalila,” he got a dry, fragrant French sound from the L.A. Philharmonic.

The clarity, here, was wonderful. The winds were pungent. The brass had point and presence. The strings were taut. The percussion (almost as much as in Messiaen) meant business. Berlioz is both profligate in his application of orchestral color and vigilant against overstatement. Much of the score’s character comes from solos and ever-shifting small ensembles. The orchestral nimbleness was striking.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale was just as impressive. Berlioz seems to have intended his mezzo and tenor soloists to emerge from the chorus, but most performances, like this one, go in for slightly more luxurious casting.

Lauren McNeese delivered her chanson attractively from the back of the orchestra, behind the violins and next to the harps that accompany her. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, singing from memory and standing in the middle of the strings, gave a dazzling theatrical account of Mab. Jonathan Lemalu didn’t, however, have quite the heft or authority to convey the full uplift of Berlioz’s Friar Laurence.

This Finale is one of music’s most inspirational calls for peace, and Dutoit made sure there was enough choral and orchestral emphasis to cause a momentary pang of guilt in politicians who wage war, in the unlikely case one might wander into Disney.

Valery Gergiev, who led the 1997 performance, was grander. Listen to Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra if you want to know exactly how far ahead of his time Berlioz was. But Dutoit’s “Roméo” has the advantage of splendor, from first moment to last.

-- Mark Swed

The Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juiliette"; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: Charles Dutoit. Credit: Los Angeles Philharmonic