In this matinee concert performance, La damnation de Faust returns to the Met stage for the first time since 2009. The company’s decision to present Berlioz’s genre bending re-telling of Goethe’s monumental drama in an unstaged version – the way it has been performed throughout most of its history, and the way it was done in its 1896 Met premiere conducted by Anton Seidl – for this season’s run of four performances was due to unspecified technical issues in reviving Robert Lepage’s ambitious 2008 staging.
In contrast to Lepage’s eerily detailed, multimedia endeavor, this simple, stark and brilliantly directed interpretation of the four-part ‘légende dramatique’ (the composer’s subtitle for his extraordinary fusion of oratorio and opera), centers on the music and the singing, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the complexity of its wild and sumptuous blend of French refinement and supernatural grotesquerie. The epic narrative toys freely with time and space, playing out in a wide-ranging sequence of settings – the plains of Hungary, a tavern in Leipzig, a meadow by the River Elbe, the abysses of hell, and the upper reaches of heaven, among others – variously and vividly depicted via its seductive melodies, unusual harmonies and dazzling orchestration.
Musically, this is a largely impressive event. However, Bryan Hymel, in the daunting role of the disconsolate title character who makes a fateful pact with the devil, delivers a vocally uneven performance. While his impassioned and intelligent characterization cannot be faulted, and he seems perfectly at home in the lower-lying music of the part, his famously powerful tenor sounds strained and disappointingly colorless in some of the score’s more soaring passages.
Elīna Garanča, on the other hand, is an inspired choice as Marguerite, the object of Faust’s affection. Her elegant, mellifluous mezzo-soprano makes the most impact in the lower-middle register. She is especially compelling in ‘D’amour l’ardente flame’ (Love’s fiery flame), the abundantly lush Act Four aria in which she fervently longs for Faust’s return after he has seduced and abandoned her.
Ildar Abdrazakov, reprising his acclaimed 2009 portrayal of Méphistophélès, portrays the cunning villain effortlessly, clearly relishing every opportunity to use his malevolent influence on Faust. With his agile and full-bodied bass, he brings appropriate dash to each of his diabolical offerings. His Act One ‘Song of the Flea’ is perfectly nimble, and his Act Two ‘Voici des roses’ (Here are roses), in which he invokes the spirits to dance around the sleeping Faust, is altogether beguiling.
Completing the small cast of soloists, Met veteran Patrick Carfizzi as the student Brander uses his colorful bass-baritone to sing his Part Two ‘Song of the Rat’ (a drinking song about a kitchen rat who dies from a dose of poison) with great panache.
Berlioz’s richly varied score offers the orchestra ample opportunities to shine, and Edward Gardner and The Met musicians make the most of them in the familiar Hungarian March (also known as the Rákóczi March) with its blazing bursts of brass and clattering woodwinds, and in the ‘Dance of the Sylphes’, in which they effectively convey both its delicacy and eerie melodies. But the instrumental forces are their grandest in their thrillingly intense account of Part Four’s galloping ‘Ride to the Abyss’.
The one hundred-plus-member Met Chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, rises to its well-established high standard and delivers an unforgettable performance of the masterful and constantly shifting vocal score. With its emphasis on great singing and great music, this is a performance that gets to the heart of Berlioz’s monumental and rousing work