Symphonie Fantastique

Simon Callow with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Last week we attended a terrific production of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Carnegie Hall. It is a dramatic and delirious piece—an opium dream of murder and witchcraft punctuated by incredible orchestral “special effects”—most famously the fall of a guillotine.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a recreation of the 1832 Paris production where the Symphonie was accompanied by its rarely heard companion piece, Lélio. This is a direct sequel in which the protagonist awakens from an overdose of opium and rises out of despair by contemplating the healing power of art. In the process he conjures a series of musical reveries performed by the orchestra, soloists, and a full choir (in this case the National Youth Choir of Scotland).

While the Symphonie is a purely orchestral work, Lélio is a piece of theater. It requires an actor to play the part of the protagonist—representing Berlioz himself—who interacts with the musicians. Simon Callow played the part in this production, to my delight. Callow is one of two actors I would go out of my way to see in anything. (David Suchet is the other.)

The entire concert was electrifying—really triumphant. I felt a genuine frisson. I think everyone in the audience sensed that something special was happening on stage. I would say it was like nothing I have ever heard, but it might actually have been something I have never heard. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in The New York Times:

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire, which Mr. Gardiner founded in 1989, plays on period instruments that produce earthier tone colors than their modern equivalents. Some have since gone extinct, like the serpent and the ophicleide, precursors of the tuba that look like plumbing designed by Dalí.

Since Berlioz’s time, wind instruments in particular have developed so that their sound more perfectly resembles the human voice. But in this earlier stage, a quality of thingness still inhabits the sound of clarinets and oboes. Their solos came across as the voices of animated objects in a way that marvelously suited Berlioz’s macabre vision.

A different program of Berlioz pieces, performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, can be heard here.

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