For the first of two Berlioz concerts at Carnegie Hall, John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique opened with an exuberant and swashbuckling rendition of Le Corsaire. Gardiner executed the opening gesture with impressive verve and shaped the piece with great care, the ORR unleashing gorgeous waves of music.
Next, Lucile Richardot for The Death of Cleopatra, Berlioz’s third failed bid for the prestigious Prix de Rome, and the first of two death scenes on this program, each depicting the suicide of an African queen; Richardot was mesmerizing. As Cleopatra, she entered regally in a purple gown and used her warm and deeply compelling mezzo to forcefully convey the anguished royal’s conflicting emotions of pride, loneliness and despair. Gardiner and the ORR were crucial participants in the drama, providing a glowing accompaniment and emphasizing the ominous repeated figures and startling string effects.
Two thrilling excerpts from Les Troyens – the pinnacle of Berlioz’s life’s efforts – followed: a vigorous and colorful account of ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’, galloping to an impressively thunder-laden climax, and Richardot returned to deliver Dido’s final scene. As beautiful as her portrayal as Cleopatra had been, the mythical Queen of Carthage was even more effective through passionately intensive singing and outstanding acting ability.
Finally, a highly theatrical, eye-opening rendition of Harold in Italy. Throughout, Antoine Tamestit wandered around the stage, vividly representing Harold on his ramblings through Italy, sometimes interacting with individual ORR players, but all the time effectively responding to Sir John Eliot. The playing was by turns electrifying, touching and vibrantly colorful, while Tamestit displayed a superbly rich and consistently even tone. The central movements were especially beguiling and the outer ones tremendously exciting. There was an extra: Richardot and Tamestit returned for a velvety rendering of ‘Le Roi de Thulé’ from The Damnation of Faust.