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Bridled Passion

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/23/2010 -  & March 22 (Philadelphia)
Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, opus 18
Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo), Dmitry Voropaev (tenor), Evgeny Nikitin (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Andrei Petrenko (chorus master), Valery Gergiev (conductor)

V. Gergiev (© Jennifer Taylor)

The history of Western music from Schütz to Bruckner or Monteverdi to Puccini is a sweeping but surprisingly logical arc. To say that J.S. Bach literally begat C.P.E. Bach who figuratively begat Mozart may seem a cliché but is such because of its veracity. In fact, the entire story line has a very comfortingly correct feel, like returning to the home key at the end of a peripatetic piece.

Only one famous composer does not fit into the pigeonholes and that is Hector Berlioz. A Frenchman who wrote like a German, a guitar player who rejected the piano, Berlioz literally marched to a different drummer (or thirty of them in the case of his more marmoreal compositions). In fact, if one had to choose the master most like Berlioz in his musical thinking, it would have to be Charles Ives.

Now Valery Gergiev is spending some time in New York exploring these exotic locales. Next month he will present Berlioz’s masterpiece, Les Troyens, on two successive nights at Carnegie Hall. For now, he begins with the unclassifiable Romeo and Juliet.

We have all heard the criticisms of this conductor: unfocused, works too much, tends to lose interest in the middle of a performance. All have at least some grains of truth to them, but Gergiev is also capable of spectacular emotion, somewhat rare in the modern group of maestros. This current performance was standard issue Gergiev, both good and bad.

To begin with the best, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk was superb in her small part. The solo singers do not portray characters but rather move the story along in an expository manner, but even with this theatrical restriction, this was a wonderful performance. She has a very rich and burnished voice and was not intimidated or daunted by singing a contralto role. The chorus was magnificent. What a treat to hear an assemblage on pitch throughout. Sadly, local New York choruses are uniformly amateurish and embarrassing. Hearing this one reinforced the need for some new blood here in Gotham City. Maestro did a fine job of presenting a controlled intensity, although he never achieved any whirlwind of passion. Tenor Dmitry Voropaev has a very nice and sweet voice, but seemed lost in his logistics, having as well a devil of a time with that classic bugbear of the Russian singer – French diction.

The Mariinsky Orchestra is a rather slapdash affair, typical of many European opera house orchestras, decent accompanists but not ready for a full symphonic effort. Part of Maestro’s perceived coolness may have simply been that the cellos of this group just cannot generate a strong enough sound for that most passionate of Berliozian themes that should haunt the listener throughout. Mr. Gergiev did fashion a colorful landscape within the context of what he has to work with, using individual sounds, particularly in the percussion section, to capture the unique klangfarbenmelodie of this rebellious composer.

Not restrained by the keyboard and its geometrical aesthetic, Berlioz ends the mammoth work strangely out of balance, fashioning a long solo for bass with orchestral support. Unfortunately, this section often falls flat, but literally did so in the poor pitch control of Evgeny Nikitin. The ensemble and its leader seemed to lose interest and the last twenty minutes or so were disappointing. Still, there is much hope for The Trojans. My only concern is that if this is the most passion that Gergiev gives to Romeo, what will be the emotional level for nuit d’ivresse?

Fred Kirshnit



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