Muti and Chicago Symphony are ‘Fantastique’

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(c) Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in his debut as music director.

The confluence of conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra looks like the making of a heavenly stream.

In Muti's official debut Sept. 23 as the CSO’s 10th music director, conductor and orchestra delivered a performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” of consummate finesse while fashioning the work’s tormented rhetoric into exquisite poetry.

The “Symphonie” is fantastique in the sense of phantasmagorical, a welling of disturbed images in the mind of a rejected lover who has sought oblivion in the embrace of drugs. The music evokes constantly shifting dream-states, and as much has anything Muti’s account was remarkable for the delicately tangled webs it spun and the deep-level rhythms that animated the music from within.

From the sighing first utterances of Berlioz’s opening movement, “Dreams – Passions,” Muti showed his mastery of music-drama, building from string phrases of near-inaudibility through an upward sweep to brass flourishes of great passion indeed. Though tempos were generally on the slow side, Muti’s carefully gauged rhythm kept the music moving forward with palpable urgency.

At every turn, but notably in the second-movement waltz and the flickering shadows of the ensuing pastoral scene, the CSO strings displayed the pliancy and sparkle of chamber music writ large. If timpani and virtuosity are not words typically conjoined, the colorful effects – the elegant touches as well as the chilling swells – evoked by the CSO’s two timpanists afforded a line of constant delight.

Muti kept a rein on Berlioz’s mad business right through a taut, ominous “March to the Scaffold,” never really unleashing the full force of the CSO sound until the crowning “Dream of a Witches Sabbath” when brass salvoes lit up Orchestra Hall.

Along with the famous symphony, Muti also offered Berlioz’s seldom performed sequel “Lélio: The Return to Life,” with actor Gérard Depardieu in the substantial spoken role of the dispirited lover and artist struggling to regain perspective and purpose.

In the “Symphonie fantastique,” Berlioz was describing a dark chapter in his own life – the winning and losing of British actress Harriet Smithson, for whom the composer swooned upon seeing her portrayal of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”  In “Lélio,” which might be termed a melodrama, it is the composer’s zealous enthusiasm for – and identification with – Shakespeare that shapes the work.

Well, shapes it to the extent that this curious pastiche has any shape. To call the hour-long “Lélio” free-form would be generous. Berlioz cobbled the music together from patches of earlier works. He wrote the rather garrulous text in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style that hardly veils what is little more than a herky-jerky sequence of non-sequiturs.

Besides Lélio as narrator, the work calls for tenor and baritone soloists and chorus. To be sure, the two singers are given beautiful songs (capably managed by tenor Mario Zeffiri and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen), but their inclusion is rationalized by the musing Lélio as, almost literally, “Ah, yes, and then I wrote this.”

There is far more spoken text than music as Lélio caroms from thought to offended thought about the artist’s wretched lot in this world of philistines and fools. Depardieu, reading from a French script as a partial translation appeared above the stage, declaimed Lélio’s perturbation in grand voice, if not always with perfect clarity.

But the very idea of pairing “Lélio” with the “Symphonie fantastique” bespeaks Muti’s flair for creative programming and his willingness to take risks. And what the maestro achieved with the real masterpiece signals a brilliant new day for the Chicago Symphony.