Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato in a past production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens | Courtesy of the artist

The critic Harold Bloom wrote that “the French have never valued originality, and until a belated Romanticism came to France, they never much cared for Shakespeare’s plays.”

While it is true that the English bard wasn’t appreciated in France until the 18th century, Hector Berlioz’s adaptations of two Shakespearean subjects — his Roméo et Juliette and Cléopâtre — are nothing if not original. Cléopâtre, a solo cantata that Berlioz wrote for the Prix de Rome, scandalized the judges so much that they declined to award a first prize.

These works still sound experimental today. The French used to dismiss Shakespeare for being “monstrous” — crude, out of proportion, and blind to the classical unities — and something of this description applies to Berlioz’s music, too. Knotty, vivid, and often manic, his scores require sharp performers with verve and personality. And that’s the treatment they receive in an excellent new recording of Roméo et Juliette, a large-scale choral symphony, and Cléopâtre, a short but ambitious early work, featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg under John Nelson.

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This energetic recording, which includes takes from studio sessions and live performances in Strasbourg in June 2022, is the latest installment in a series of Berlioz recordings from DiDonato and Nelsons. They have previously released Les Troyens and La damnation de Faust, monumental works that are not too frequently recorded. Roméo et Juliette, the symphonic work which fills the bulk of this disc, is more popular than these, but the music sounds stylish, vibrant, and fresh in this new rendition.

Despite parts for chorus and soloists, the piece is mostly orchestral — Berlioz chose to convey the drama through instrumental music instead of voices. The tenor and mezzo-soprano soloists (Cyrille Dubois and DiDonato) provide occasional narration, and the only named role is that of Friar Laurence, sung here by the charismatic baritone Christopher Maltman. The chorus, made up of the Coro Gulbenkian and the Chœur de l’Opéra national du Rhin, was a welcome presence, singing with transparency and excellent diction.

The Strasbourg orchestra has a dry, no-nonsense sound that appropriately delivers Berlioz’s orchestral inventiveness without being weighed down by Romantic sheen. Dubois and DiDonato, though given very little to do in this piece, sing with a natural, unaffected clarity that appropriately allows attention to remain on the orchestra. Maltman, by contrast, produces an almost pompous gravitas befitting Friar Laurence, who drives the piece toward its happy conclusion. (The text, by Émile Deschamps, who translated Shakespeare’s plays for the French stage, intervenes heavily with its source material, allowing Juliette to survive and placing extended emphasis on the reconciliation between the two families.)

In Cléopâtre, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, DiDonato shines. Though the sound quality of her voice is not particularly remarkable, her knack for dramatic interpretation and finely honed technical prowess have made her one of the leading interpreters of our time. In this piece, she convincingly depicts Cleopatra’s shifting moods and executes Berlioz’s challenging vocal writing with commanding assurance. Climactic high notes are always convincing, and as Cleopatra fades away at the end — Berlioz instructs that the voice should “grow weaker, scarcely articulating the words” — DiDonato creates a truly haunting, uncanny sound. Although it was rejected by the jury of the Prix de Rome and not published until 1903, Cléopâtre is a thrilling work, and it receives the treatment it deserves with this excellent recording.