By Perry Tannenbaum
May 20, 2016, Charlotte, NC – A distinguished scholar who taught my undergrad Shakespeare course once told us that a precious folio edition of the Bard’s plays was on display at one of England’s most prestigious libraries, available to all to peruse, and that the most well-worn page in the whole book – by far – was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Rightly so,” she added after a brief pause, defusing my presumption that she was about to sneer at popular taste. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musical director Christopher Warren-Green might very well agree with my professor’s sentiments, for at the latest KnightSounds concert, he programmed that scene twice in succession, underscoring the fact that we still haven’t tired of that balcony 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.
Helping the demonstration at Knight Theater were emissaries from UNC Charlotte’s Theatre Department and Charlotte Ballet. Charlotte-based soprano Melinda Whittington helped to similarly double-underline the appeal of two other prime Juliet moments. So in the space of a mere 70 minutes, 50 less than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the tragedy’s prologue, we not only had orchestral and operatic works inspired by Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, we had the lovers themselves speaking the lines of their most memorable scenes.
Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Nino Rota all took their cues from the blank verse and rhymed couplets in different ways. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s famed Fantasy-Overture wasn’t written for any specific production of Romeo and Juliet. With three fully developed themes for Friar Lawrence, the Montague-Capulet strife, and the R&J romance, the flavor of the piece is more like a Liszt tone poem than a true overture. About half the size of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the KnightSounds performance quickly offered us opportunities to savor the work of the clarinets, the double basses, the violins, the French horns, the cellos, the flutes, and harpist Andrea Mumm.
At the same time, the performance was streamed outdoors to the plaza at the nearby plaza on the Levine Avenue of Arts, and the screen hovering above the Knight Theater stage gave us the pleasure of seeing what the outdoor audience saw with the added thrill of the live sound. There were more than enough cameras deftly at work to prove that this video production had been nearly as meticulously rehearsed as the music. We didn’t cut to the French horns or the cellos in the early going, and the cameras later settled on the second violins too late and missed English hornist Terry Maskin entirely. Yet overall, direction was quite polished.
Sitting toward the front of the orchestra, I found that the cameras consistently revealed who was playing upstage when the musicians in front of them blocked my sightline. My fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of the orchestra were also allayed: the acoustic shell that graces the Knight stage gathers in the orchestral sound while still allowing it to breathe. This was different from the old school presentation that the CSO brought us of the Fantasy-Overture at Belk Theater in 2011, and while there was little to prefer musically at either performance, I have to say that the camera work lifted the current experience above the one I praised five years ago, enriching what I saw and heard then with occasional close-ups of Warren-Green’s expressions.
I had little hopes for the UNC Charlotte segments of the evening, with Jennifer Huddleston appearing as Juliet and Sammy Hajmahmoud as Romeo. When their stage director, Professor Andrew Hartley, appeared onstage to recite Shakespeare’s prologue, he didn’t exactly fire up my hopes. Nor was I initially impressed with Hajmahmoud when he initially came onstage to launch the party scene where the masked Romeo first meets Juliet. But Huddleston was pure luminosity as Juliet, instantly proving the advantage of casting the role as youthfully as possible. The glow of her performance magically turned Hajmahmoud’s halting awkwardnesses into virtues and he gradually relaxed into Romeo, further igniting their chemistry. Together they grew irresistibly charming, somewhat upstaging their elders when they followed.
After Huddleston, Whittington seemed woefully mature as Juliette singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera. The costume she wore was comparatively formal and neither the suppleness of her coloratura nor the lightness of her tone matched what we hear from elite sopranos in this showpiece. But she returned later in the concert and absolutely scorched Juliette’s “Potion Aria,” demonstrating the power that opera can add to turbulent moments of indecision. Huddleston and Hajmahmoud do all the potions and suicides as well, but their most glorious moments – and Hartley’s as well – come when they do the balcony scene.
Romeo initiates the scene onstage, but a spotlight cues us to the likelihood that Juliet will appear in the box seat section of the Knight’s balcony. It’s absolutely sublime when she does. Part of the magic is sculptural, after all, for the moonlit Juliet is not only more divine at a height, Romeo is more ardent and worshipful below her with his upward gaze. Hartley played around with the usual blocking and Romeo’s climbing up and down, but somehow he contrived to have Juliet down at the orchestra level and onstage for the latter half of the scene and its exquisite farewells.
The “Balcony Scene Pas de Deux” from Prokofiev’s ballet score had to follow this sublimity, and the presence of two eminent Charlotte Ballet principals, Josh Hall and Alexandra Ball, helped to ease the descent. Hall and Ball were so impressive, in fact, that I fairly well ignored Prokofiev’s music and the excellence of the orchestra. But as majestic as the lifts were – Ball’s hands as she rises have a musicality that most ballerinas can only envy – the sculptural advantages of the theatrical staging we had just seen were surrendered, along with Hajmahmoud’s touching awkwardness and Huddleston’s youth. An impossibly acrobatic final kiss partially compensated for those missing elements
After the stunning sequence of balcony scenes and potion scenes, the concert grew more somber with Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet: A Renaissance Timepiece” and Hartley’s pronouncement of the tragedy’s concluding lines. Until I heard CSO’s performance, I’d assumed that the Rota melody most familiar to me was his “Theme from The Godfather.” As often as I’ve heard that tune over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard Rota’s Romeo and Juliet melody even more often. The familiar melody nestles nicely in a composition that has more to offer, with some gorgeous work from Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erica Cice.
An evening that I expected to be pleasantly light and superficial turned out to be rich and deeply satisfying. Programs were in the funky style that usually characterizes the KnightSounds series, but they are augmented by the Charlotte Symphony app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. You can get bios of the featured professionals from this app as you ease into your seat – it’s general admission, so early arrival can be recommended. While I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was the choreographer, the app did supply translations of the Gounod arias.