Newark’s Prudential Hall at NJPAC throbbed with the sounds of Tchaikovsky, Gounod and especially Prokofiev Friday, Jan. 9, when Sir Jacques Lacombe led the mighty New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in a program dedicated to three seminal works inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” Only the maestro’s hallmark imaginative programming could unite four major art forms—opera, ballet, theater and symphony—on one stage, producing a unique, powerfully moving experience.
Opera and strictly symphonic music occupied the concert’s first half, opening with Piotr Tchaikovsky’s “‘Romeo and Juliet’ Fantasy-Overture” (1880), a rousing performance that guaranteed goosebumps throughout. Maestro Lacombe extracted both sweeping melodies and forceful climaxes punctuated by terrifying cymbal crashes from the distinguished ensemble. Conductor and musicians collaborated as one, making magnificence look simple.
Next the orchestra displayed its penchant for opera. American soprano Rachel Sterrenberg and Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei intoned an aria each and one of four love duets from Charles Gounod’s five-act opera “Roméo et Juliette.” The soprano’s delivery of “Je veux vivre” (I want to live it up), imbued with girlish excitement, was technically spot-on in all its vocal ornamentation and filigree. The tenor’s ravishing and slightly smaller voice with a beautiful top wafted the sweet strains of “Ah! Lève-toi, soleil!” (Arise, oh sun!), filled with wonderment, which caressed the ear and touched the heart.
The program’s first half concluded with the demure “O nuit divine” (Oh divine night), a quiet duet that teases with continually alternating passages before finally uniting both voices in hushed rapture. All the while the orchestra provided delicate support and practically shimmered in its calm, tranquil conclusion.
After intermission, the huge orchestra erupted with the violent, devastatingly dissonant chords that rip open Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Soon seven actors from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, guided by Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, entered and exited in front of the orchestra, declaiming monologues, dialogues and brief scenes excerpted from Shakespeare’s inspired stage tragedy.
At times the acting took place in pauses between musical sections, at others the actors spoke above the orchestra. During strident orchestral passages, such as both sword fights, occasional balance problems occurred when the powerful orchestra nearly overwhelmed the discreetly miked actors. But losing a few words here and there did not prevent the drama from coming through.
The double performance of actors and musicians, each intensifying the other, reinforced the drama inherent in Prokofiev’s masterful score and in the Bard’s artfully crafted iambic pentameter lines. Unlike incidental music for a play or a film score, which are meant to complement the work’s dramatic line or enhance the emotional content, this music was created to convey the drama itself. So at times the audience heard a virtual clash of titans, producing riveting moments that will never be emulated anywhere.
The talented cast members were led by Jackson Moran and Lindsey Kyler in the title roles, whose scenes together came across as the true awakening and maturation of intense young love. Rounding out the cast were richly costumed Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Robert Cuccioli, Stark Kirby and Derek Wilson, all wholehearted in their portrayals, some of multiple characters. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is on the verge of announcing its 2015 season, which runs May to December. It would be great to see their complete “Romeo and Juliet” fully staged in Broadway-caliber performance, which has become their trademark.
From the Tchaikovsky and Gounod through to the Prokofiev, NJSO showed its chameleonic ability to adapt to any musical style. Their passionate performance ended in an incandescent blaze.
In the next two weeks, NJSO’s Winter Festival continues with the two-week residency of superstar violinist Sarah Chang. Again, Shakespeare-inspired works populate the two programs being presented in all six venues throughout New Jersey that the orchestra regularly visits.