The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Oct. 12, 2003.
Berlioz's dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, is unlike any work by him or anyone else. Written more than a century and a half ago, it still defies definition. Friday night in Popejoy Hall the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under music director Guillermo Figueroa treated this singular creation with knowing and loving care.
In his introduction to the score Berlioz declared, either ingenuously or defensively, that no one should be confused about the form. It was merely a symphony with choruses. Daniel Albright in his recent book, Berlioz's Semi-Operas, came closer when he called it a ``symphony that has swallowed an opera.''
To use a down-to-earth analogy, the structure is akin to the formula of the succesful preacher who said, ``First I tell them I'm going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them I've told them.''
The work begins with an introduction and prologue for orchestra, small chorus and two soloists that, like a Greek tragedy, relates what will happen.
Then Berlioz plunges into the expressive heart of the work. The orchestra retells the story in a pointed, if arbitrary, series of scenes whose first three parts correspond to symphony form. The final sections of the work hover somewhere between opera and oratorio. Voices take over, all ends in a rousing tumult of sound as the families of the ill-fated lovers move from feuding to a declaration of friendship.
Figueroa brought to this singular creation an insight born of knowledge and a deep affinity for the music. His particular passion for the composer was evident in a display case in the lobby of Popejoy Hall holding items of Figueroa's personal collection of Berlioz memorabilia.
The precision and originality of the writing in Romeo and Juliet reflects Berlioz's commanding knowledge of orchestration. Figueroa knew the score inside out.
Both expressively and technically, he knew exactly what he wanted. He communicated that fervor to the players and carried them through the music's virtuosic demands with a clarity that never wavered.
The orchestra responded with a level of dedication and concentration that served the music well. Their experience with Figueroa in rising to the challenges brought on by the NMSO's Berlioz Festival and by this work in particular, should have strong, positive effects. He is not only sharpening their instrumental command. He is also pulling them deeper expressively, as their moving interpretation of the slow orchestral movement, ``Serene Night,'' made clear.
They traveled well down into the singular beauty of its language. The movement is vivid testimony of Berlioz's belief that the language of instruments, by its very vagueness, held a richness and power that the voice could not equal.
The chorus was soundly prepared in their demanding and multiple roles by their director, Roger Melone. Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Clawson, tenor Dominique Moralez and the particularly expressive baritone Zheng Zhou made up the team of soloists.
October 24 and 25 the NMSO Berlioz Festival winds up with the Roman Carnival Overture, the Symphonie Fantastique and the song cycle, Les Nuits d'été.