Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Berlioz: La symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Berlioz: Lélio, ou Le retour à vie (The Return to Life), Op. 14 bis - Gérard Depardieu (Narrator), Mario Zeffiri (Tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (Bass-Baritone) and the Chicago Symphony Chorus
After enjoying one of the most ground-breaking works of the 20th century in a viscerally gripping Wozzeck at the Met yesterday afternoon, I travelled back in time, for about one century, and got to revel in one of the most ground-breaking works of the 19th century in Berlioz’s magnificent Symphonie fantastique at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening. Of course, the fact that it was going to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of his still new music director, world-renowned conductor Riccardo Muti, was a powerful incentive, and the cherry on top of the cake was the presence of French cinema super-star Gérard Depardieu, who would be narrating lesser-known Lélio, Berlioz’s half-music, half-poetry sequel to La symphonie fantastique, after intermission.
Earlier during the week, a nice but firm automated voice mail from Carnegie Hall had warned me that the concert would start promptly at 7:30 pm and that from that moment on no-one would be allowed to enter the hall until intermission. A much laudable initiative that should be repeated in all performance venues, if you asked me.
For those of us who showed up on time – and there were very few empty seats in the sold-out auditorium - the reward was all-around glorious. What was shockingly modern almost two centuries ago has preserved its vibrant inventiveness while being now completely accessible to even the least adventuresome audiences. The story behind La symphonie fantastique, which in the early days had to be provided to the audience at the composer’s insistence, has of course considerable helped connect the listener to the dramatic outline and meaning of the work. However, regardless of how many external pointers are out there, the music's still the thing. Last night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made sure that the revolutionary score splendidly came alive in all its distinctive details, from the more subdued but richly evocative first three movements to the last two diabolically thrilling episodes. The violins luminously sang, the brass brightly shone, the winds harmoniously rose and, in the middle of it all, stood maestro Muti dynamically keeping the sound traffic smooth and steady.
I had never heard of Lélio before and was curious to see what would come of it. The composition turned out to be a 6-movement tableau vivant combining narrated monologues, sung poetry and, well, music too. During my French years, I grew up with Gérard Depardieu effortlessly dominating the French cinema world with incredible talent, authority and stamina. So watching him, whose voice I will probably recognize until the day I die, impersonate Berlioz and channel the composer’s musings about life, love and art on the stage of Carnegie Hall was an extraordinary experience for me. Hearing him advise Riccado Muti not to confuse mezzo-forte with fortissimo before playing the score he had just written was one priceless moment that got the whole audience to chuckle. By the time he told the orchestra and chorus that their performance was quite good, therefore allowing them to tackle bigger works, he had fully conquered us all. The work itself was too disjointed to be totally engaging, but it contained a handful of very enjoyable highlights. The two soloists were fine and the Chicago Orchestra Chorus was fantastic, especially in the haunting “Chorus of the Shades”. While Lélio does not have the scope of La symphonie fantastique (But then, what does?) yesterday’s presentation of it was a pleasant and fun, if not transcendent, experience, and that was already plenty.