Muti, CSO back in business with DiDonato radiant in Berlioz

Fri May 03, 2019 at 12:45 pm

By John von Rhein

Joyce DiDonato performed Berlioz’s “La mort de Cleopatre” with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Most symphony orchestras get only one opening concert per season. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night gave itself a second one.

This was the orchestra’s first subscription concert following the signing of a new five-year labor contract April 27, which  ended the longest and most contentious strike in the CSO’s 128-year history. Nearly seven weeks of concerts and other services had been lost, and, with a compromise agreement in hand, both sides clearly were eager to get on with business as usual.

For the first time since the official 2018-19 season opener in September, the Armour Stage of Orchestra Hall sported an American flag, and Riccardo Muti led the orchestra and audience members in an especially fervent rendition of the National Anthem. Minutes before, the crowd greeted the entrances of concertmaster Robert Chen and the maestro with roaring displays of mingled appreciation and relief.

For Muti, who had shattered precedent by standing alongside striking musicians as they picketed outside the hall in mid-March, it marked not only the start of his two-week May residency but also an opportunity to reestablish his good will towards donors and the public that must pay the freight for the new labor agreement.

The music director made the most of the occasion, leading an interesting if abbreviated program bracketed by two symphonic portraits of Rome. One of these scores, Georges Bizet’s orchestral suite Roma, was being given for the first time at these concerts since the CSO’s only previous complete performances in 1894. Somewhere along the line, the announced curtain raiser, Cherubini’s Anacreon Overture, was dropped, making for a rather unbalanced first half.

Roma is a curiosity in its own right. Years before Carmen burst on the scene and sealed Bizet’s international reputation, he tinkered for half of his adult life over the four-movement Roma, calling it “my symphony” before setting it aside in 1871, four years before his early death. Meanwhile his true symphony, the one in C major he dashed off at age 17, remained hidden among his papers, not to see light of day until 1935. 

Roma was originally conceived as a series of musical postcards representing four Italian cities, but only the title reference to the Eternal City survived subsequent revisions. Despite Bizet’s high hopes for the score, it has sunk from the concert repertory, even in France.

Philip Huscher, in his informative program note, calls this obscurity “inexplicable.” But there is a better reason for this near-universal neglect – the music is not very good.

Bizet’s skills as an orchestrator are evident, and one or two pretty tunes rise from the anodyne blandness, but that’s about it. The only thing remotely “Italian” about it is the finale, a Neapolitan-style tarantella. The rest smacks of watered-down Weber and Mendelssohn, woefully lacking the melodic freshness and spontaneity of Bizet’s rightly popular Symphony in C.

No doubt realizing that musical gruel as thin as this needs all the help it can get, Muti lavished unusual care on securing a recognizably Gallic sound and style. The scherzo – a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream knockoff – moved with light-footed grace, while the tender main melody of the Andante was molded with all due ardor and elasticity. The orchestra (which included David Cooper of the Dallas Symphony as guest principal horn) dispatched this unfamiliar score with no hint of tentativeness. Bizet’s symphonic problem child can now slumber undisturbed for another 125 years.

That left Joyce DiDonato’s beautifully sung, dramatically intense rendition of Hector Berlioz’s La mort de Cleopatre (The Death of Cleopatra) as the high point of the concert.

The Frenchman’s early (1829) scene lyrique is a compact cantata containing boldly original ideas he would later recycle in more mature works. Here we have the unhappy and dishonored Egyptian queen preparing to meet her ancestors in the afterlife before touching the fatal asp to her body.

Looking regal and vaguely Egyptian in her multicolored print gown, DiDonato has the measure of Berlioz’s vocal music, as her performance as Dido in the recent Erato recording of Les Troyens proves. Her French diction is impeccable and her feeling for how words and music combine to produce high drama was never less than superb, even if her pitch could have been more exact in one or two stentorian climaxes.

The music calls for a firm-voiced mezzo with a shining high extension, which suits the American diva to a T. She brought rich coloration and a vivid response to Cleopatra’s emotional journey from shame and regret to rueful self-sacrifice. The moment when the snake struck and the queen felt her life ebbing away, in the weakening heartbeat of the double basses, was deeply poignant in her portrayal.

This is essentially an operatic scene, but without the trappings of opera; as such, it fully engaged all that makes Muti today’s consummate man of the theater, even if Berlioz’s theater is purely imaginary. Conductor and orchestra were with the singer every charged minute of the way, hurling thunderbolts before Cleopatra gasped her last. The audience was to be commended for delaying its storm of applause long enough for the poignant effect to register in silence.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Then it was back to the Eternal City for Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. If this gorgeous Technicolored-before-the-fact 1924 orchestral travelogue caught Muti in a retrospective mood, that was understandable, since the piece had figured on his very first CSO concert as music director, on Sept. 19, 2010, at Millennium Park. One recalls the immense swagger and flair of that performance, as Muti the landscape painter wielded a broad brush with nary a trace of vulgarity.

So it was again on Thursday night, when one was reminded how much richly evocative atmosphere Respighi created beneath the decibels of his popular tone poem. The horns whooped up a joyous storm in the opening “Pines of the Villa Borghese.” Stephen Williamson’s solo clarinet sounded as if from a great distance in “The Pines of the Janiculum,” an effect just as magical as the (prerecorded) song of the nightingale near the end. Pipe organ and a “banda” of extra brass players stationed in the terrace – fluegelhorn, trumpet, Wagner tuba and all the rest – undergirded the mighty crescendo representing an ancient Roman army on the march in the finale: a true sonic spectacular that created the template for many a Hollywood helmet-and-toga epic decades later.

Others may play Pines as a cheap showpiece. Muti played it as the popular masterpiece it is. On, finally, with the rest of the season.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wheaton College, and 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Center.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Muti, CSO back in business with DiDonato radiant in Berlioz”

  1. Posted May 04, 2019 at 2:21 am by Chuck

    Another informed and informative concert review by John von Rhein. A pleasure to read and something that enriches the wait and expectations for Tuesday’s performance that I will be attending. Thanks to JvR for this and all his reviews for the past 40 or so years.

  2. Posted May 04, 2019 at 7:45 pm by Jasper

    Attendance? Was there a significant number of empty seats?

  3. Posted May 07, 2019 at 4:45 pm by jjwp

    I would say about 80% full. I expected more. But everyone was very happy.

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