Thursday, 6 September 2018

A vivid theatrical, orchestral experience: John Eliot Gardiner's all-Berlioz prom

BBC Proms - Joyce DiDonato John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Proms - Joyce DiDonato John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
(Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Berlioz Le corsair, La mort de Cleopatra, Royal Hunt and Storm and Dido's death scene (Les troyens), Harold in Italy; Joyce DiDonato, Antoine Tamestit, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 September 2018
Star rating: 4.5

Colour, texture and vivid energy in this all-Berlioz prom from Eliot Gardiner and his period forces

Having recently recorded the role of Dido in Berlioz' Les Troyens on Warner Classics [see my review], there was genuine excitement at the prospect of hearing Joyce DiDonato performing Dido's death scene live at the BBC Proms. She joined John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for an all-Berlioz Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 5 September 2018. As well as the scene from Les Troyens, DiDonato sang La mort de Cleopatre and the orchestra performed the overture Le Corsaire and The Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens, and were joined by viola player Antoine Tamestit for Harold in Italy.

Playing standing, the orchestra launched into Le corsaire with enormous energy. Throughout the music was by turns headlong and thoughtful with a real tang to the timbres, creating a vivid performance full of contrasts.

This was followed by La mort de Cleopatra, Berlioz's third attempt at winning the Prix de Rome (in fact that cantata was far too daring for the jury). It is a striking sequence of recitative and aria which Berlioz sets in a fluid manner, creating a single dramatic narrative. Joyce DiDonato gave a dramatic performance, full of arresting detail and a vivid attention to the words. She was complemented by the timbres and textures of the orchestra, everyone making the music full of quick changes of mood. The death scene at the end was terrific.

Next came the Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens, the ballet sequence which is as much orchestral showpiece as anything else. Gardiner started quietly but again it was the sound and contrasts of the period instruments which brought the music alive. Gardiner brought the off-stage brass on-stage so that we were able to make the most of the saxhorns, and it was lovely to be able to hear the contrast between the smooth even tone of the saxhorns and the more varied timbres of the hand-stopped French horns. This was a performance full of contrasts and textures you could cut with a knife, a vivid and theatrical orchestral experience.


We plunged on directly to Dido's death scene, with Joyce DiDonato rushing on during the prelude. She gave us fluidly shaped recitative, complemented by the colours in the orchestra. She made a passionate and dignified Dido, with touching references back to the love duet. Unfortunately, given such a vivid performance, we did not get the final death scene and the performance finished with the air 'Adieu, fiere cite'.

BBC Proms - Antoine Tamestit, John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Proms - Antoine Tamestit, John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
 (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
In the second half we returned to earlier in Berlioz' career with his symphony Harald in Italy. Gardiner and the orchestra began the first movement with the soloist, Antoine Tamestit, off stage. Gardiner brought a classical sweep to the music, yet the timbre of period instruments gave romantic spice to the music. The piece is hardly a concerto, Harold is the eternal observer, and Tamestit emphasised this by coming on stage and observing the orchestra before playing, and he rarely stood in the classic soloists position, instead wandering round the stage creating a sense of visual dramatic narrative. He plays quite a big viola with a beautiful singing sound, so that though not a virtuoso work Tamestit's melodic line was the passionate centre of attention, and both Tamestit and Gardiner brought sheer energy to the work. The second movement was full of attractive textures, whilst Tamestit brought real poetry to the third movement. In the lively last movement, Gardiner and the orchestra emphasises the crisp and lively rhythms, whilst Tamestit's viola wandered in and out of the orchestra both physically and musically.

BBC Proms - Antoine Tamestit, John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Proms - Antoine Tamestit, John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
(Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
This was a programme which showed what can be gained from performing Berlioz on period instruments, and Gardiner and his team complemented this with a vivid sense of energy. It was lovely to hear DiDonato in the snipped from Les Troyens, but as with the Proms performance of two arias from Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra, it made you wish that room could have been made for more substantial excerpts or even the whole work. As it was, there was rather a sense of greatest hits about the evening, but what hits they are.

This review also appears in Opera Today.

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