In advance of his auspicious debut conducting Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict at Seattle Opera in January, Seattle Symphony maestro Ludovic Morlot is presenting two consecutive weekends of the French composer’s works. The first of these programs consisted of Les Nuits d’été, the lyrical song cycle set to six poems by Berlioz's compatriot and neighbor Théophile Gautier, and the perennial favorite, the Symphonie fantastique. Both works are united in their depiction of love gained and lost, and embodied Berlioz’s take on love and music, which the composer called, “the two wings of the soul”.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Love certainly dominates Les Nuits d’été, a far more romantic and less cynical work than the Symphonie fantastique. Originally written for voice and piano, but more frequently performed with orchestra, it contains some of Berlioz’s most sublime melodies, harmonies and atmospheric images. The poetry evolves from the joy of young love through the loss of innocence, a beloved’s death and hopes for the future.

The six-movement cycle contains many of Berlioz’s characteristic and recognizable musical signatures that tip off the listener. The second movement, Le Spectre de la rose, is reminiscent of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, and evokes Didon’s lullaby in the composer’s operatic masterpiece, Les Troyens. Likewise the final song, L’île inconnue, inspires images of Énée’s ship gliding off into the distance.

It is relatively rare for the cycle to be performed by a male rather than a female voice, although Berlioz dedicated each song in the orchestral version to well-known German singers, two of whom were male, and specified the use of male voices in both the piano and orchestral renderings. For me, this piece is forever associated with Régine Crespin’s luxe, velvety quality.

Nonetheless, it was a revelation to hear the silky tones of eminent English tenor Ian Bostridge, in his Seattle Symphony debut, which displayed a beauty that speaks to the composer’s wishes to use a tenor voice in Villanelle, Absence, Au Cimitière and L'Île inconnue. Though his extreme movements – albeit in response to his love for the music – were distracting, the tenor’s rendition, accompanied by Morlot’s sensitive rendering of the delicate orchestration, exemplified the sensuality of the poetry and the music.

As with his overture, Le Corsaire, which was composed following the breakdown of his marriage, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was inspired by his maniacal love for, and eventual disillusionment with, the woman with whom his relationship had proved difficult and untenable, in the end depicting his ongoing disparagement of the female sex in general.

First performed in 1830, his five-movement symphony broke ground with its innovative use of ingenious programmatic, compositional and orchestration techniques. It is linked in tone and theme with its choral fantasy sequel, the monodrama Lélio and brings home the concept of the idée fixe: in this case the recurring theme that ultimately calls up the protagonist’s deal-with-the-devil that ends with a Mephisto-like day of reckoning.

To say that Morlot, as Bostridge has stated, is “steeped in the French tradition” is an understatement. Clearly this music courses through Morlot’s veins. He subtly maintained an awareness of the idée fixe without hammering it home in any of its incarnations. In the initial Réveries – Passions opening movement, he painted a dreamlike atmosphere without exaggerated languor. The glittering Bal sounded appropriately ethereal and elegant. In the following Scène au champs Morlot effectively evoked the pastoral idyll of an Alpine dialogue-turned-melancholy lament, interrupted by somber premonitions, though a more far-off offstage oboe would have created a more bucolic effect.

In the fourth and fifth movements, Morlot emphasized the grotesque images and overwhelming urgency of the savage, cynical end to the fitful journey of the lovesick, despairing artist, providing an exciting, vigorous finale.

A shortcoming became evident in the use of the very important chimes, which are significant in the famed “For whom the bell tolls” moment. The Seattle Symphony’s instrument lacked the depth and imposing quality that one expects at this juncture, and the deficiency detracted from the overall “special effect” that contributes to the unique quality of the piece. That said, the orchestra performed energetically, and in places with utter abandon, under Morlot’s baton. The spectacular playing he elicited from the ensemble was some of the best I've heard from this ensemble.

According to Berlioz, love is either ideal or lamentable. With his always-creative programming, Morlot gave the audience an impressive dose of each characteristic, performed with Gallic flair, cognisance and discerning taste.