Fantastique Music

Berlioz's Best Friend: Colin Davis--the leading interpreter of the composer for 40 years--conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Romeo et Juliette.Photo: Mark Corke

Fifty years ago, Hector Berlioz was still considered an oddball composer—a genius of some sort, to be sure, but isolated from the musical mainstream, possibly a little daft, and not that often performed. But to me, he was always a central figure, perhaps because I grew up in Massachusetts and started attending orchestral concerts when Charles Munch led the Boston Symphony. Munch programmed all the big Berlioz scores when it was unfashionable to do so, and his performances were frequent, fiery, and intoxicating—hearing The Rakoczy March from the second row of Symphony Hall blew this 15-year-old out of his seat. For me, thanks to Munch’s advocacy, Berlioz was right up there with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the fourth B whose music was never less than standard rep.

And so it has now become for audiences most everywhere as Lincoln Center marks the composer’s bicentennial with a large-scale celebration titled “Fantastic Voyages.” The captain at the helm for this adventure has been Colin Davis (no relation), the leading Berlioz interpreter for the past 40 years. His measured approach to the music is quite different from that of Munch, whose major Berlioz recordings from the fifties were last seen gathered in an indispensable boxed set of CDs on the RCA-BMG label. Munch’s impulsively passionate readings (even more so live than on discs) were perfect at the time, especially for an eager teenager, just as Davis’s wisely considered, judiciously balanced, lower-voltage but no less deeply felt explorations sound right for today.

For his first concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, Davis paired Berlioz’s two most frequently heard orchestral scores, Harold in Italy and the Symphonie Fantastique. By now these works, especially the latter, are warhorses, but they hardly sounded like overexposed goods here. No matter how often he conducts these pieces, Davis always manages to make them fresh, their orchestral innovations surprising and their expressive content immediate. While some conductors still tend to emphasize the music’s unusual structural devices and ear-catching instrumental touches, Davis presents them as an integral part of Berlioz’s creative personality and shows how they develop naturally out of the musical discourse. Perhaps this explains why Davis has always been identified with “problem” figures such as Sibelius, Elgar, and Tippett, composers whose quirky personalities only need the right sort of patient understanding and careful nurturing to bring out their special qualities.

The two big choral works were even more impressive. Complete performances of Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust are still major events when they happen, and Davis made sure they sounded that way. No one, not even Munch, has ever articulated the orchestral drama of Roméo et Juliette more clearly or eloquently, or the uncanny manner in which Berlioz turns the instruments into the actors of Shakespeare’s play. The first-rate soloists also helped make it all come alive—Sara Mingardo, Stuart Neill, and Alastair Miles in Roméo; Neill, Miles, Petra Lang, and Jonathan Lemalu in Faust—but it was mainly the overall satisfying conception and firm guiding hand on the podium that made these concerts so exciting.

Gounod started composing Faust ten years after Berlioz finished his dramatic legend, but the opera has always seemed like it had been written years earlier, with its sweetly sentimentalized treatment of the same material and more conventional musical manners. For a while, it was one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory, but its popularity has waned lately and the Metropolitan’s current revival almost makes it seem like a novelty. We probably would not be seeing it at all had not opera’s power couple—Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna—decided to favor their New York fans by choosing the work as their latest joint vehicle.

Operagoers who have missed Faust will probably be grateful to have it back in any form, but the Met’s current effort really doesn’t offer much to cheer about, other than Bertrand de Billy’s sensitive conducting. For one thing, the production designed by Rolf Langenfass remains as hideous as ever. Marguerite’s humble home, along with the whole bizarrely cartoonish medieval town, seems constructed from Play Doh that got caught in a mudslide. If there’s any opera that harbors no deep secrets and responds best to a sensitively picturesque, old-fashioned period production, it’s Faust. Hal Prince’s unremarkable direction has long since been discarded, and the present comings and goings, all drearily mechanical, are credited to Peter McClintock.

Perhaps none of this would have mattered had three golden-age singers been on hand—Faust, after all, has had a distinguished vocal tradition at the Met, standards were once very high, and some of us have long memories. Vocally, Gheorghiu came off best, although she scarcely looks or behaves like the innocent Gretchen of legend with her dark good looks (no, Mr. Volpe, I will not wear a braided blonde wig) and her all-too knowing behavior—this Marguerite, eager to get her hands on Faust, seemed to be the one in league with the Devil. Her kittenish character is further emphasized since here she is given a ball of yarn to play with rather than the traditional spinning wheel. Still, her soprano is attractively textured and she is an expressive singer, even if the coloratura flights of the “Jewel Song,” smeared and charmless, mostly defeat her.

In the title role on opening night, Alagna seemed vaguely distracted, concerned more with impressing the crowd with his high notes than with cultivating a honeyed tone or shaping a poetic line (he sounds far more involved on his new all-Berlioz recital for EMI Classics, an intelligently planned, elegantly sung collection that reminds us of how effectively the composer wrote for the tenor voice). Looking quite silly and very tubby in his red suit, James Morris should really put Méphistophélès behind him as his booming bass becomes increasingly thin, nasal, and unsteady. Even old Faust deserves better treatment than this.

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Fantastic Voyages
A celebration of Berlioz; conducted by Colin Davis at Lincoln Center.

Opera by Gounod; conducted by Bertrand de Billy at the Metropolitan Opera.

Fantastique Music