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SF Symphony’s Berlioz ‘Roméo et Juliette’ c’est magnifique

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San Francisco Symphony closes its 2016-17 season with performances of Berlioz’s groundbreaking “Roméo et Juliette.” (Courtesy Stefan Cohen)

When Hector Berlioz set out to write “Roméo et Juliette,” he vowed to honor Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers with a work “full of passion and imagination.”

Mission accomplished. The composer adored Shakespeare, but he interpreted the play his way.

The resulting 1839 score is an unusual hybrid — Berlioz called it a “dramatic symphony” — that eliminates characters and reshuffles the narrative, interweaving arias and big choral numbers, extended orchestral passages and poetic flights into a kind of lofty fantasia on Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy.

Wednesday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony returned to the score, and the results were glorious. Repeats continue through Saturday to conclude the symphony’s 2016-17 season, and these performances are being recorded for future release on the SFS Media label.

Berlioz structured the score in seven parts.

An Introduction depicting the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is followed by an extended Prologue featuring chorus, mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists commenting on the situation.

Additional episodes cover the Capulets’ ball and after-party, Juliet’s funeral cortege, and the death of the young lovers. In the final part, Berlioz offers a scene worthy of grand opera, with Friar Laurence laying down the law and bringing the warring parties together in an uneasy peace.

Still, the greatest moments in “Roméo et Juliette” come in the three large orchestral movements. The sumptuous Love Scene and the beguiling scherzo for the Queen Mab dream sequence demonstrate the composer’s genius for lush, enveloping symphonic writing.

The symphony hadn’t performed “Roméo et Juliette” since 2003, and in Wednesday’s 95-minute performance, played without intermission, Tilson Thomas conducted a large-scale reading full of thrilling details. The assertiveness of the horns in the Prologue, the sweetness of the string sound in the Capulets’ festivities, and the arresting blend of voices and low strings in Juliet’s funeral procession were among the evening’s most effective highlights.

Vocal soloists were well-chosen. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sounded plush and rich-toned in her arias, and tenor Nicholas Phan followed with a brief yet expressive appearance.

Top honors went to bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, who delivered the extended Friar Laurence part with dramatic authority and weighty, dark-hued vocalism.

The men and women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus also excelled: their strong, unified contributions are a tribute to Ragnar Bohlin, who marks his 10th anniversary as chorus director this year.

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 29-30 and July 1
Tickets: $38 to $162
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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