Hector Berlioz made no secret of the fact that Symphonie Fantastique was one long opium dream, the fevered imaginings of a bereft lover haunted by memories of his fickle beloved. Like a typical romantic, the poor soul tries to poison himself with opium, only to end up in a deep reverie. During the dream his feelings progress from desperate longing to hope after seeing his lady in a ballroom and then to ferocious distrust that drives him to murder the woman he's obsessed with. He's hanged, and the fantasy ends with a deranged vision of his own burial on the Witches' Sabbath.
The Houston Symphony's rendition of Berlioz's best-known symphony was nearly flawless on opening night of a two-performance run at Jones Hall. Led by Christoph Eschenbach, the players emulated the sufferer's bedeviled fancies, sounding yearningly passionate one minute and intoxicatingly frenzied the next. Preceding Symphonie was an enticing solo concert of six art poems -- Les Nuits d'te ("The Summer Nights") -- by Theophile Gautier, also set to music by Berlioz. This portion featured a gifted mezzo-soprano and regular at the Metropolitan Opera, Susanne Mentzer, who seemed at her best during the melancholy numbers.
Although Berlioz contrived the drama underlying Symphonie's five movements, its autobiographical roots are unmistakable. The piece is inspired by the composer's doomed attraction to Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson who eventually married the composer but separated from him after nine years. The music also contains melodies Berlioz wrote during his infatuation with the much-older Estelle Fournier, his first love.
The opening "Reveries -- Passions" introduces the lyrical violin melody that frequently recurs to haunt the dreamer, a young musician. Beginning as a soft, melancholy wail of lonely alienation, the tune elegantly agitates itself into an explosion of passion by the artful strings. Eschenbach nicely paces the singular violin voices with irregularly phrased, frenetic orchestral strains that follow. In this first movement, the dreamer's suffering and delirium effectively come across.
During "Un Bal" ("A Ball") the symphony gorgeously simulates the tranquility that comes with happier times. Happier, at least, for the time being. During this movement, the dreamer encounters his ladylove on the dance floor. The fast-paced waltz of violins echoing this ballroom fancy titillate with magic. Flutes and harps nicely suggest an uplifted heart that yearns for that oh-so-romantic vision -- the merging of body and soul with the object of one's passion.
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In "Scene aux Champs" ("In the Country") the conjurer is most optimistic and relaxed. Here, English horns, oboes and plaintive violins sing a moving pastoral tune, reprising the haunting melody that represents the untouchable woman. But infatuated love is bound to be unrequited just as the overfilled heart is bound to be broken. She appears to him once again, and this time he convinces himself she's no good for him.
After he kills her, ominous drumbeats signal his execution during "Marche au Supplice" ("March to the Scaffold"). In the final "Songe d'une Nuit du Sabbat" ("Dream of the Witches' Sabbath"), the full orchestra creates an ignoble spectacle surrounding the musician's burial. Here, they pull off an amazingly devilish parody of the dreamer's idol. The lilting strings that conjure a pristine woman of grace early on are suddenly mocked by grotesque shrieks of the harshest horns. Her formidable image no longer haunts; it's now just silly and trivial. The wild sounds during the burial -- captured by the line of bass cellos, screaming tubas and the blast of snare drums -- brilliantly conjure a vision replete with ghosts and other diabolical creatures gathered at a burlesque funeral.
After viewing such a dramatic spectacle, it's hard to believe Berlioz's contemporaries remained indifferent to his operatic achievements. Although best remembered as a symphonic and choral composer, his love and flair for drama still infuses such works as "Les Nuits d'ete." With impeccably florid singing, mezzo-soprano Mentzer captures the composer's affinity for sadness in the four middle songs. In "Sur les Lagunes" ("On the Lagoons") and "L'Absence" ("Absence"), she shows an acting flair despite the limited scope of these mournful, lonely pieces. This soloist's range is excellent, definitely palatable to nonopera buffs who showed up to hear Symphonie Fantastique.
There seemed to be something for everybody in this all-Berlioz program: the poetry of Gautier set to music, lyrical strains of the melancholy mezzo, the wildly theatrical opium fantasy nurtured by an infatuated young musician. To the hot-blooded French virtuoso who once penned scathing music reviews of Parisian music life and eventually wrote his own opera librettos, capturing the romantic imagination definitely required both words and music.