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Berlioz’s Summer Nights


By turns exuberant, mournful and lyrical, Berlioz’s song cycle, Les Nuits d’Ete, is a stunning work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. I had the pleasure of hearing it performed at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night by Joyce DiDonato and Alan Gilbert, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The results were breath-taking.

The older I get, the more I enjoy Berlioz. What’s even better is there are more and more opportunities to hear Berlioz, since works such as Les Troyens, La Damnation de Faust and Benvenuto Cellini are increasingly available in the opera house, and more rarities are appearing on the concert stage. Back in my high school and college days, it was basically Symphonie fantastiqueHarold in Italy and over and out. Which is a shame because Berlioz’s works tease the ear both in terms of musical color as well as the unexpected phrase. He apparently loved the middle voice—in addition to the featured viola in Harold in Italy, there are superlative roles for mezzo-soprano in the operas I just mentioned, along with Beatrice in his lovely take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice et Benedick. (Massenet was another composer whose operatic roles keep mezzos in high standing: Werther’s Charlotte; Cherubin; and not one but two star parts in his version of Cinderella—Cendrillon and her Prince Charming).

Joyce DiDonato’s appearance turned into something of a victory lap, given her recent Grammy award for her CD, “Diva Divo”—she even wore her Grammy gown (check out the photo). The audience almost broke into cheers when she made her entrance, and then the magic started (Note to Joyce: Next time get Alan Gilbert to carry a handkerchief in his jacket pocket for you. While a lady never sweats, only glows, we know Les nuits d’ete is a concentrated sing and the audience will understand your need to blot).

Originally composed for voice and piano, Les nuits d’ete uses a small orchestra, not that much larger than chamber size with the number of woodwinds reduced and trumpets, trombones and percussion eliminated. The six songs that comprise the work are set to poems by Theophile Gautier, and make considerable demands on the singer in terms of vocal color and emotion. The opening song, “Villanelle” found DiDonato giving full voice to the exuberance of summer. Her performance of the next song, “Le Spectre de la rose,” the story of a flower worn by a young girl to a ball, was perfection. There was almost a collective sigh when she finished, and she seemed to take a bit of extra time to compose herself before continuing on. DiDonato may have exceeded this performance with her rendition of the last song, “L’Ile inconnue,” a “let’s sail away from it all” challenge delivered by a young man to his love. Joyce may have been wearing a strapless gown, but for that song she was Le Comte Ory‘s swaggering Isolier once again, with the cocky grin and reckless affect. It was obvious she loved singing it, and loved being able to share her delight with the audience. My immediate thought after the last note was “Gee, can’t we hear that one again?”, which apparently everyone else in the house felt too, because they wouldn’t stop applauding. Sadly, no encore—after being called out about five times for a bow, she finally left the stage to the disappointment of many members of the audience, including myself.

Brava, Joyce—now get into the studio and record it!

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