A frustrating fusion of Shakespeare, Prokofiev from the BSO

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Some of Prokofiev's most glorious music ends up as underscoring in BSO's semi-staging of "Romeo and Juliet."

The Montagues and the Capulets aren’t the only opposing forces in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert version of "Romeo and Juliet" this weekend. Shakespeare fights throughout with Prokofiev, whose music accompanies this frustrating event; both get gravely wounded.

What must have seemed sensible and pretty cool on paper — an acting troupe performs a large portion of the Bard's beloved tragedy, while the orchestra delivers excerpts from Prokofiev's brilliant 1930s ballet score "Romeo and Juliet" — ends up doing justice to neither.

When the BSO offered a theatrical version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" in 2014 with the music Mendelssohn wrote specifically for a staging of the play, the results proved enchanting. This time, two distinct genres are being forced together. It’s an awkward fit. The acting in a ballet is meant to be seen, not heard; the music conjures text and subtext.

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, some of the most radiant measures Prokofiev ever wrote were treated like underscoring in a movie. Worse, a lot of the music was practically drowned out by the heavily amplified dialogue (I kept wondering if the guys in the sound booth had been instructed: "Louder, louder, we can still hear the orchestra"). And the more the actors shouted, the less decipherable they became.

That said, although there were desertions during intermission, the good-sized audience that remained delivered a rousing ovation at the conclusion of the performance.

Like last year's "Midsummer" venture, this "Romeo and Juliet" was put together with help from Washington's celebrated Folger Theatre, which assembled the cast, and directed by Edward Berkeley, who made the adaptation.

Berkeley drew fluent, natural work from his actors. But their contemporary American style of handling Shakespeare was sometimes at odds with the distinctive color and character of Prokofiev's score.

This was especially so in the balcony scene, when Christina Sajous (Juliet) and Sebastian Stimman (Romeo) rushed through their lines like antsy teens at the mall. The poetry in Shakespeare's words barely registered. But the heart of those words could be felt — if you strained to listen — in Prokofiev's aching lyricism.

Those scenes that were played out music-free could be more easily savored. Sajous was quite poignant, for example, with Juliet's soliloquy before taking the death-simulation poison. And she and Stimman did eloquent work in the tomb scene.

Louis Butelli was a standout as both Friar Lawrence and Juliet's Nurse (a switch of scarves helped keep the characters straight). The rest of the ensemble made sturdy, dynamic contributions.

The orchestra, which got into the act during the ball scene (masks for everyone), maintained polish and passion as conductor Marin Alsop shaped the score sensitively.

It was great to have more of the prismatic piece on hand than usually encountered in concert halls, including delectable passages for mandolins. Too bad so much of Prokofiev's masterwork had to compete so hard, so often for attention.

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If you go

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

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