The Met Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall – Berlioz with Joyce DiDonato

Overture, Le corsaire, Op.21,
Les Troyens – Chers Tyriens; Chasse royale et orage; Dido’s death scene
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

The Met Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 16 June, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The curtain-raiser was an exciting rendition of the concert overture Le corsaire, which, unlike Symphonie fantastique, is not programmatic. Indeed, Berlioz did not confer that title, deceptively suggestive of swashbuckling pirates, until eight years after he composed the work. Rapidly swirling strings and chirping winds launched the piece, and Nézet-Séguin’s expressive gestures caressed a slow, lyrical theme, hesitantly at first, then surging as if breathing in and out. He carefully shaped dynamics and contrasting tempos as powerful contributions from woodwinds and brass alternated with the lyrical strings. Following a series of dramatic chords, a rather jolly brass-intoned tune soared above rapid string figures, leading into a majestic coda. 

Joyce DiDonato infuses vitality into every character she portrays, and with her regal bearing in two selections from Les Troyens she convincingly became the Carthaginian Queen Dido. Her voice rang out gloriously in ‘Chers Tyriens’ in which Dido greets her subjects, expressing pride in their noble works and calling upon them to continue to be great in peace and heroic in war. The aria’s majestic prelude, powerful mid-point climax, and delicate postlude were all beautifully rendered by the orchestra. Nézet-Séguin led ‘Chasse royale et orage’ (Royal Hunt and Storm), the interlude during which Dido and Aeneas take shelter in a cave, the music building to a climax to represent both their ardor and the raging thunderstorm. She brilliantly enacted Dido’s final scene, depicting the queen’s fury and descent into madness when abandoned by Aeneas, with mournful violas and bass clarinet punctuating her decision to end her life. In the culminating aria, ‘Adieu, fière cité’, Dido’s farewell to all she held dear, DiDonato’s mezzo was penetrating, even in the softest passages, with gently throbbing chords bringing the scene to a touching conclusion. 

Following intermission, the orchestra demonstrated its standing as a world-class ensemble with an overwhelmingly potent performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Its elaborate program portrays a series of opium-induced adventures fantasized by a lovesick musician, with his beloved represented by an idée fixe theme introduced in the opening movement, ‘Reveries, Passions’. Nézet-Séguin brought out the fascinating character of each of the varied guises in which that melody recurs: blending with a dizzying waltz to the accompaniment of two harps; as a wailing clarinet solo in a march leading up to the fall of the guillotine; and finally as a wild witches’ dance. Fierce attacks and driving tempos made for generally high levels of excitement.

Notable contributions by the woodwinds included the flute’s introduction of the idée fixe theme, the dialogue between English horn and a distant oboe in the pastoral ‘Scene in the Fields’, and clarinet solos and a chattering quartet of bassoons in the final two movements. The brass was magnificent, trumpets and cornets à pistonsbrilliant above, and low brass (tubas, not ophicleides) rocking the Hall in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ (exposition repeat observed) and in voicing the ‘Dies Irae’ theme along with tolling bells. The percussionists also excelled. The ever-present strings whirled away at ‘A Ball’ and stood out in the ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ in the initial rumble of the cellos and basses and in the extended contrapuntal section, to which the violins and violas added a macabre touch in a col legno passage.One would think it enough to have just experienced a magnificent performance of a ground-breaking masterpiece, but there was more … DiDonato returned for an encore: Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’. DiDonato’s touching vocal line was gorgeously introduced and then accompanied by concertmaster Benjamin Bowman’s solos.

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