La Damnation de Faust

Berlioz
La Damnation de Faust, Op.24

Marguerite – Ruxandra Donose
Faust – Gregory Kunde
Méphistophélès – David Wilson-Johnson
Brander – Henry Waddington

London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir
The London Oratory School Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 24 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust is, like many of the composer’s works, a conception that defies easy categorisation. The 24-year-old Berlioz composed his Huit scènes de Faust, published it as his Opus 1, and sent it to Goethe. The latter’s composer friend Carl Zelter dismissed Berlioz’s offering as “the aborted offspring of a hideous incest … a series of grunts, snorts and expectorations”. Berlioz learnt to receive – and live with – such epithets. Eighteen years later, undeterred by Zelter’s tirade, Berlioz returned to Faust and incorporated – and expanded – the eight scenes into a “dramatic legend”; four large parts now containing a total of twenty scenes.

Such a structure might easily be irredeemably episodic, but one of the virtues of this powerfully effective performance under Charles Dutoit was the melding together of the episodes, so that even the briefest quasi-recitative sections had an inexorable sense of forward momentum. Performed without an interval, the work as a whole, therefore, had a compelling cogency, aided in no small part by Dutoit’s refusal to linger or to allow the more overtly ‘romantic’ passages to be unduly sentimental.

The opening ideally captured the sense of the world-weary Faust’s brooding. Gregory Kunde matched this gloomy mood with a melancholic tone which was initially rather husky in quality, and occasionally covered by the orchestra. But his overall portrayal grew in stature, most definitely suggesting a character alternately restless and pensive. He was fine in the duet with Marguerite, eschewing Berlioz’s lower-note options and rising gamely to a top C-sharp twice. Kunde undoubtedly projected the ardour of the character at this point. He was less successful at portraying the cosmic visionary in the remarkable “Invocation à la nature” – though Dutoit’s steering of the orchestra through the thorny accompaniment here was wholly admirable – but the notion of a desperate man caught up in an inevitable and unavoidable fate was certainly communicated. If, finally, one sensed that the voice was a size too small for the part, Kunde’s commitment was reward in itself.

David Wilson-Johnson was a larger-than-life malevolent nemesis. Without going ‘over the top’, he nevertheless conveyed delectation and glee at the notion of Faust’s downfall at his own behest. His solo numbers conveyed a degree of ironic charm, which was wholly suitable, and his characterful delivery of the text ensured that the recitatives were full of insinuation. He revelled in leading Faust towards the abyss, and his growing sense of triumph was chilling.

Though described in one part of the programme as a soprano, Romanian-born Ruxandra Donose commands a warm, almost voluptuous, mezzo-soprano voice. Her dark-hued tone could be ardent when required, though the rapid vibrato she deploys is an acquired taste. Her great solos were delivered with a degree of detachment, and she was at her best in the duet with Kunde and in the subsequent trio where she hurled out top notes quite thrillingly. It was a confident portrayal, though, ultimately, it was not easy to conceive of this sometimes-frosty Marguerite as being the ideal woman of Faust’s fevered imagining.

The combined choruses had been well prepared by Joseph Cullen. Indeed, their incisive singing contributed significantly to the success of this performance as a whole. There was some scrupulous attention to the varied dynamic writing, and articulation, intonation and diction were exemplary. But the plaudits for this performance must belong to Charles Dutoit, who gave a most convincing interpretation of a score that can too often ‘hang fire’. Dutoit chose tempos that seemed completely appropriate throughout. I very much liked the sense of irony that he imparted in various scenes; the “Easter Hymn” and the final scene ‘In Heaven’, for instance, were tinged with a sense of ‘things are not what they appear to be’, which seemed quite apt for a work which is laced with ambiguity.

Whilst not dragging, the more reflective moments were beautifully expressive – aided in no small measure by consistently fine orchestral playing – and there was a sense of danger lurking behind such apparently rollicking scenes such as that set in Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig, where Henry Waddington was a caustic Brander. Most impressive of all was the sense in which the drama was building towards one epic climax – that of Faust’s and Méphistophélès’s decent into ‘Pandemonium’. And when that huge B major chord erupted at the start of that scene, the effect was cataclysmic. Dutoit screwed up the tension even more later on in the Allegro vivace passages, which were taken frighteningly fast, and found the male chorus relishing the sibilants of Berlioz’s invented demonic language.

The overall effect of this astonishing passage was quite breathtaking and made the contrast with the subsequent ‘celestial’ music all the more telling. An absorbing performance, then, which served to confirm the audacity of Berlioz’s powers of imagination and invention. Dutoit conducts Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on 26 October in Leicester and on the 28th in London.



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