Roméo et Juliette; Cléopâtre
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone); Coro Gulbenikan; Chœur de l’Opéra national du Rhin; Coro Gulbenkian; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/John Nelson
Erato 5419748138 107:46 mins (2 discs)
John Nelson has built a solid reputation as one of Berlioz’s leading advocates, with multi-award-winning recordings of many major compositions. This latest instalment consists of two works that demonstrate the composer’s extraordinary dramatic genius – though neither is an opera.
The ‘dramatic symphony’ Roméo et Juliette (1839) involves three soloists and chorus but largely retells Shakespeare’s story in purely instrumental terms. The Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra – lynchpin of the Nelson series – offers confident, full-toned playing, with crisp and alert strings, characterful woodwind, subtle yet, where necessary, overwhelming brass, with the percussion, too, delivering exactly as required. Nelson himself is fully observant of the wealth of detail that adds so much colour and meaning to Berlioz’s writing. The soloists are impressive, the chorus committed and exact.
The cantata Cléopâtre is an early work (1829), one of Berlioz’s unsuccessful attempts to win the crucial Prix de Rome competition – yet clearly a masterpiece. Once again the orchestral part of the performance is excellent, with each element in the fabric clarified and delicately balanced, although to a degree Nelson’s classical approach misses out on some of the headlong Romanticism that marked out Colin Davis’s interpretation with the incomparable Janet Baker, with its sheer electricity, as so special. Similarly, Joyce DiDonato’s vocalism shows her a little past her best: some of the higher passages sound somewhat strained; but overall her comprehension and expressivity with both text and notes remain rewarding.