OPERA NEWS - La Mort de Cléopâtre; Harold en Italie
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BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cléopâtre; Harold en Italie

spacer Cargill; Tamestit, viola, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev. LSO 0760 (SACD)

Recordings Berlioz Harold in Italie Cleopatra Cover 815

Berlioz’s cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre represented his 1829 entry for the Prix de Rome, which he would win the following year. Judges to the contrary, it’s a truly remarkable piece — showing his debt to Gluck for classical grandeur and unorthodox orchestration — and an important way station to creating his Cassandre and Didon three decades later. Here it forms the vocal portion of a beautifully engineered live recording by the London Symphony under its fitful but rarely dull principal conductor, Valery Gergiev.

Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill. a splendid Anna in the Met’s Troyens two seasons ago, entered into the Berlioz lists early in her career. She sang Marie in Colin Davis’s third recorded Enfance du Christ (2007) and two years ago recorded a refulgent Mort de Cléopâtre along with Nuits d’Été under Robin Ticciati for Linn. Ursule in Béatrice et Bénédict awaits this summer in Japan. 

Gergiev, too, already has a Cléopâtre on CD, with Mariinsky forces fronted by the highly sonorous but unspecific Olga Borodina. The cantata has a considerable discography, from a post-prime but wonderfully intense Jennie Tourel with Bernstein to two Baker traversals — the earlier, better one for Alexander Gibson — and Véronique Gens’s treasurable performance for Louis Langrée, probably the best declaimed since Tourel’s. Simon Rattle’s Susan Graham sings beautifully but remains rather polite for the Serpent of the Nile. 

At this 2013 Barbican performance, Cargill provides beautiful, spinning tone, occasionally taking on excessive upper-register vibrato, and copes accurately with Cléopâtre’s wide intervals. She moderates dynamics more precisely than word-based emotion and sounds a little hard-pressed by the queen’s final resolution on an honorable death. It’s enjoyable enough but not a sharply articulated, definitive account of the piece. One serious demerit of the new issue is the lack of printed text: listeners will want to follow this remarkable twenty-one-minute psychological study of a great woman under duress word by word. (Internet resources yield the French original and an Italian translation.) 

The purely instrumental Harold en Italie (1834) drew partially on the composer’s Italian adventures and has long been a concert staple. Here, the first two movements get off to rather banal starts, but Gergiev’s approach turns committed and fun once Berlioz turns on the juice, and the lovely third (Serenade) movement is consistently well judged. French violist Antoine Tamestit is compelling — forthright when needed but steering a subtle, non-showboaty course through the beautiful solo part conceived for Paganini. spacer

DAVID SHENGOLD

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