When, three decades ago, James Levine brought the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a series of post-opera season performances, the idea was to allow these formidable musicians to shine outside their regular operatic repertoire. Soloists – not necessarily singers – and guest conductors were often invited to perform with the ensemble, resulting in many remarkable concerts. Brilliantly continuing the tradition, Levine’s successor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, scheduled two consecutive-nights performances this June, the second one dedicated to the œuvre of a single composer, Hector Berlioz.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the MET Orchestra in Carnegie Hall
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

The introductory piece was the overture Le Corsaire, reshaped at the beginning of the 1850s from his earlier conceived The Tower of Nice. Under the spell of the Romantic literature of Lord Byron and James Fenimore Cooper that the composer greatly admired, the work was given a crisp reading. Lyrical pages were caressed as much as march-like melodies were given a vigorous treatment. The dazzling string writing and the contrasts between the two tonalities (A flat major and C major) were clearly underlined.

Played after the interval, the ubiquitous Symphonie fantastique is an as evidently programmatic endeavour as the much lesser known Le Corsaire is not. From the admirable built-up tension of the first movement to the demonic finale, it was a remarkably well-thought performance, full of eerie harmonies and canny rhythmic patterns. Helped by exquisite contributions from the MET Orchestra’s players, Nézet-Séguin made every rendition of the ideé fixeevoking the composer's beloved Harriet Smithson – both easily recognisable and full of character. Inner details were handled just comme il faut, neither skimmed over nor overemphasised. The Ball scene was full of nobility and ludic. The March to Scaffold could have sounded a little more menacing, but, holding off allowed the conductor to release an even more powerful musical deluge in the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. If the conductor’s goal was to rekindle the public’s enthusiasm (blunted by frequent listening) for the music’s obviously innovative character, he has hopefully succeeded.

Joyce DiDonato, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the MET Orchestra
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

As the centre of this performance, Nézet-Séguin had selected several fragments from the second half of Les Troyens. A colourful orchestral segment featuring exquisite horn solos, the Royal Hunt and Storm, was bookended by two vocal contributions from mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Didon, the Queen of Carthage. Labelled “Chers Tyriens” and “Adieu, fière cité” they featured music from the opera’s numbers 19 and 47, respectively (it was unclear why only partial texts were included in the printed booklet accompanying the performance). DiDonato again proved her exceptional ability to connect with an audience. Regal or passionate, wounded or vengeful, she only needed a few stanzas to fully bring to life Didon's complex character. Every sound was imbued with a special vibrancy, even if her French diction was not always immaculate. Her wonderfully well-defined voice was occasionally not just dominant, but a tad too stentorian. After many years of collaboration with DiDonato, both as conductor and as pianist, Nézet-Séguin was truly supportive, allowing the singer to take the music in any direction she desired.

Joyce DiDonato and the MET Orchestra
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

In the end, it was not quite an all-Berlioz evening. DiDonato reappeared for a rendition of Richard Strauss’ Morgen! which was as full of undertones as the Troyens finale was wrapped in Armageddon’s trumpets. After a period of sometimes infelicitous performances, the MET orchestra has found its sure footing under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership, proving to be in full swing once again.