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Portrait of The Self-Indulgent Artist

New York
Perelman Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/16/2011 -  

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 – Lélio ou Le retour à la vie (Lélio or The Return to Life), Op. 14bis

Mario Zeffiri (Tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (Bass-Baritone), Gérard Depardieu (Narrator)
Chicago Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe (Director), Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti (Music Director and Conductor)

G. Depardieu (© Chicago Symphony)

Who has not–at the age of 9 or 10 or 11– fallen in love with a schoolmate, and, too shy to approach him or her, has composed in the mind, a painting, a drama, an opera, a set of poetry in honor of the one we love?

Hector Berlioz fell in love with Harriet Simpson just from seeing her on the stage. But as venerated artist (and nobody doubts Berlioz was the ultimate 19th century liberated artiste) was the eternal child, he composed and produced two adorations for his beloved one.

His symphony of longing for Ms. Simpson (who was ignorant that she was the dedicatee) has become known as the Fantastique, because of its opium dream fantasy. But what about the sequel? Again, Berlioz the artist was at work. At first he was set to commit suicide out of love, as was the habit of the times. Instead, he went about composing a work which was not orchestral, not operatic, not a song cycle, not a drama. But a combination of them all. The songs, for solos or chorus or both, drip over themselves with beautiful moments, the narration tying them together are embarrassedly self-revealing, then happily self-deprecating, then a near pasquinade (of Hamlet’s instructions to the Players).

Most of all, the essence is that of Werther and other heroes of the time: that life is suffering, and death is but repose.

Lélio ou Le retour à la vie is rarely performed anywhere outside of France simply for the forces employed. Even more than the Symphony, this is a fantasy, in need of two bel canto males, a large chorus, large orchestra, even a solo pianist.

Essentially it needs a great conductor to hang the whole floppy mess together. (Riccardo Muti, who rarely conducts French music is still the best), it needs a great orchestra (the Chicago Orchestra), and a Narrator who not only can take it seriously, but can laugh at himself, plead pathos, cry, become angry, and serve both as tragic hero and Greek Chorus.

For this Augean task last night, Gérard Depardieu, that most unlikely leading man, who can make one cry at Cyrano or laugh in his English-language Green Card, who is swordsman and lover, was the Narrator, performing with what can only be called splendor.

In theory, the Narrator should stand in front of the curtain, with orchestra, singers and chorus invisible until the last long orchestral/choral music. I think everybody in packed Carnegie Hall last night would have loved to see M. Depardieu, even those not speaking French. But reality is reality Mr. Muti saturated the stage with his orchestra, soloists and chorus. Mr. Depardieu sat or stood in front of the viola section, reading his lines with the passion of Racine’s Andromaque. His sudden emotional outbursts were like vocal simulations of Mr. Muti’s orchestral outbursts, his humor toward the end was, like Macbeth’s “Knocking at the Gate” an honest relaxant from an excess of emotion.

Lélio is still a farrago , but what a farrago! Tenor Mario Zeffiri might have strained at the topmost notes of his songs, but that went with the emotional irrelevance of the songs themselves. Kyle Ketelsen was fine in his baritone role. All I can truthfully say about the Chicago Symphony Chorus is that theirs too was an emotional heartfelt rendition of Berlioz’ early songs.

Taken out of context, those songs are ravishing. In the context of this musical mélange, the effect was so dramatic that we could simply suspend our disbeliefs to appreciate the gorgeous sounds.

R. Muti (© Andreas Praefcke)

And what adjectives can one possibly find for Muti, the Chicago Symphony, and the Lélio prequel, Symphonie Fantastique? I’m not talking about the last two movements. Any well-meaning conductor can make a sensation with the March and the opium-drunken Walpurgisnacht. (That was obvious by the woman sitting next to me, who flipped loudly and endlessly through her Playbill, for most of the work, but who actually stopped and gave attention to Muti for the final 13 minutes.)

Those first three movements are the testing ground, and here Muti was…well, adjectives used for his Otello would be appropriate here. Only the best get through these first movements. Mr. Muti gave a tension to the opening by holding back every ten measures or so before letting go. For the waltz, he found his trajectory. The long long Adagio had a mellow shepherd tune by a mellow English horn offstage and on. Muti never tried for special effect here, and by the time of the grand finales, he seemed to be practicing for tonight’s Shostakovich Fifth, with all the stops out.

He is a stunning conductor, with the orchestra exercising tenderness, violence and always diamond-sharp radiant clarity.

Harry Rolnick



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