Hector Berlioz: excerpts from Les Troyens and Romeo et Juliette
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo)
Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)
“Insano Cassandrae incensus amore.”
Hector Berlioz, Memoirs
A rather disproportionate number of opera fans here in New York purport to have been in the audience on the night of October 22, 1973, when Shirley Verrett sang both Cassandra and Dido in the same performance of Les Troyens. Either of these roles is a test of a singer’s fortitude as each contains an extremely emotional scene of high intensity, Cassandra’s Jeremiad at the battlements of Troy and Dido’s lingering death at the funeral pyre. Blessed with a voice of great range, this wonderful artist often sang two roles in the run of an opera, especially Norma and Adalgisa, but never again on the same evening. With Orchestre de Paris at Carnegie Hall, Michelle DeYoung attempted the same exercise without the bother of the other four and one half hours of onstage time that burdened Ms. Verrett that storied evening.
One of two Didos at the Met last season who replaced the unavailable Olga Borodina, Ms. DeYoung hedged her bets last night by eschewing Cassandra’s big number in favor of the more intimate ”Les Grecs ont disparu”. With her big, deep mezzo voice, Cassandra is not her role and, even though she produced a finely burnished sound and hit all of the notes, she was not terribly comfortable in the vocal characterization. Had she done only this rendition, I would have judged her performance as quotidian, unremarkable. However, her Dido was extremely affecting, exhibiting a total affinity with the role and revealing considerable thought in preparation. In Troyens, Berlioz, as Wagner did contemporaneously in Die Walkuere, wrestles with the issues of gods and men, mortality and humanity, patriotism and responsibility, hubris and humility. Ms. DeYoung’s Dido was heartbreakingly fragile, alone and, most importantly for Berlioz’ dramatic plan, completely human. Seldom, if ever, have I heard such subtle shadings of color in this aria, which she intelligently began at “je vais mourir” rather than the more oft excerpted “Adieu, fiere cite”. Every breath seemed more and more resigned and reflective; this was a death of extraordinarily delicate shading (I know that the era is completely wrong, but the almost imperceptible and yet highly effective transitions of tone reminded this reviewer of Rothko). Also quite magical was the accompaniment, matching this true star with equally radiant (but subdued) moonlight.
This was, in a programmatic sense, a rather odd concert, one in which no single piece, except for the Royal Hunt and Storm, was ever designed for presentation as a stand-alone. In order to pull off a night of such bleeding chunks, some of which, especially in the Romeo section, simply ended with no sense of closure, the ensemble needed to be in top form. Maestro Eschenbach can be justly proud of this group, for what impressed the most was their timbral nuances and quite earcatching chiaroscuro. Notable moments included the illusion of hunting horns in the opera interlude, playing that no American hornist could ever match because of a total lack of training in this forgotten style, a truly amazing Queen Mab out of a realm of fairydom seldom plumbed by more “flashy” orchestras and conductors, and the diaphanous passagework of the strings in the love scene. Further, Eschenbach framed the big melodies (and none are bigger than those of Berlioz) with quiet assurance: when he let THE Romeo and Juliet theme loose in the cello section, on a grounding of tremulous bass, it is hard to believe that everyone in the crowd wasn’t thinking of their own deepest passions. For me, this was the finest concert of the new season thus far.
Since most of the tickets for this event were sold (or, in this case, not sold) during the period when many Americans felt considerable animosity towards France, the hall was about one-third empty, but those of the faithful who stayed were treated to two highly spirited encores. The ball from the fantastique was a swirling wonder, the Rakoczy March suitably rousing. The 200th birthday year is almost at an end. I fear that us Berliozians will soon be put back in the closet for an extended period. Well, let’s see, he died in 1869…
Frederick L. Kirshnit