Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Muti in New York [Symphonie fantastique & Lélio]

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Lélio, Op.14bis

Gérard Depardieu (narrator), Mario Zeffiri (tenor) & Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)

Chicago Symphony Chorus

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 16 April, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Riccardo Muti in Taipei (Taiwan) 2004. © Photograph : ©Silvia Lelli 2004Riccardo Muti’s brisk entrance into the Stern Auditorium telegraphed his recovery from a collapse in early February that fractured his jaw and revealed the need for a pacemaker. The program paired two outsize works by Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique and Lélio.

Balances favored the strings in the symphony, a brilliant shimmer in the quieter dynamic range, and a surprisingly warmer sound in the middle and louder volumes than one has heard from Bernard Haitink or Pierre Boulez in recent years. Muti evoked a misterioso atmosphere in the opening moments of the first movement, and honed in on the hairpin turns of mood after the idée fixe makes its appearance without sacrificing structural unity or momentum. The suspenseful portents that opened the second movement ‘Waltz’ yielded to genuinely elegant playing that demolished the ‘muscle orchestra’ stereotype that many still attach to Chicago – the sound surprisingly similar to the Philadelphia Orchestra, which Muti led for some years. ‘Scène aux champs’ was unexpectedly suave – but the rumbles of thunder didn’t have enough bite. ‘March to the Scaffold’ came off with virtuoso panache, as did ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath – particularly the phenomenal balance and build-up of momentum from the beginning of the fugal section. The only disappointment was Muti’s downplaying of Berlioz’s radical orchestration and special effects in this breakthrough work.

If Berlioz had lived in the era of mass communication, particularly cinema, he might have had second thoughts about composing a sequel to Symphonie fantastique. The impetus for Berlioz to compose “Lélio” was the shocking decision of his fiancée, Camille Moke, to break off their engagement and move in with Camille Pleyel. Less than half-a-year after the December 1830 premiere of Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz was well on his way to creating a work that was part-music, part-poetry (by the composer himself and Goethe). Berlioz called the work “the conclusion and complement” to the symphony, and created a central character, Lélio (to be played by a “first-rate dramatic actor”), the embodiment of Berlioz himself.

The biggest problem is that Berlioz’s text – at turns florid, tepid, and rambling – tries to do too much, acting as dramatic structure, aesthetic manifesto, and artistic apologia, and succeeds at none of them. Worst of all, the handful of jokes at the end aren’t all that funny. Gérard Depardieu brought gravitas and sympathy to the role, but nothing can redeem the overwrought monologue. The music is uneven, though it does have its moments. Mario Zeffiri’s slightly reedy voice suited Goethe’s ballad ‘Le pècheur’ quite well. The choral music is not prime Berlioz. Both ‘The Song of the Brigands’ and ‘Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest’ outstay their welcome, but the Chicago Symphony Chorus brought strong character to both, and, in the former, Kyle Ketelsen sang with dramatic panache.

While I can’t begrudge the opportunity to hear both works together on the same program, “Lélio” still comes across as an anticlimactic dud. But my hat is off to the excellent vocal forces, Depardieu, Muti, and the Chicago Symphony for presenting the work in its context as sequel.

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