With an asp clasped in her grasp
Royal Festival Hall
Hector Berlioz: Ouverture Le carnaval romain, La mort de Cléopâtre, Symphonie fantastique
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo)
Orchestra of the Age of EnlightenmentSimon Rattle (conductor)
There‘s a lot of Berlioz about in London this year. Colin Davies‘ Berlioz Odyssey with the London Symphony Orchestra offers a complete survey of the composer, in generally lush style. This concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of two, conducted by Simon Rattle under the rubric "Berlioz the innovator", which aim to provide new insights by the use of original instruments and orchestral techniques. The OAE is generally as good as its conductor, and Simon Rattle is scaling new heights these days, so the performance turned out to be superb in itself as well as offering an educational contrast with the LSO series for the high minded.
Berlioz of course was a romantic in almost every sense, a consciously self-creating genius obsessed with the inner life, and with emotional responses to and engagement with the world. But his music always also has a strong narrative drive that can get lost in the big sound of a modern, post-Brahms, orchestra. Rattle and the OAE made a cleaner sound that was more rhetorical, even conversational at times, but still intense and full of contrasting textures and colours. The overture Le carnaval romain, a fairly conventional overture made of ideas recycled from the Florentine carnaval in Benvenuto Cellini perhaps gained only some lucidity. But the equally familiar Symphonie fantastique, a series of drug-induced visions arising from obsessive love, had an apparent reasonableness and narrative coherence that made the last two movements truly nightmarish, a sinister but exhilarating March to the scaffold followed by a horribly vivid Witches’ sabbath. You might well have thought of Goya, but it was also difficult to miss a kind of classicism in this performance, not entirely surprising in a work that was originally conceived as a version of Goethe’s Faust.
La mort de Cléopâtre, which formed the second part of the concert, is effectively an operatic scena. But again, the potential excess -- an erotomaniac oriental queen in extremis submitting to her fate -- was kept under tight control. Anne Sofie von Otter, austerely glamorous rather than exotic, at times recalled Janet Baker in the intensity of her tone. She also, though, projected passion in a way which suggests that her Carmen -- a role Baker famously refused -- could be convincing if not conventional. The orchestra provided a set of voices in counterpoint to von Otter’s, which they only rarely overwhelmed as she sang with focus rather than force.