Charles Dutoit, and Berlioz, make a good match.
One doubts that the Swiss conductor would like to be solely remembered for his remarkable devotion and command in French repertory. But it’s undeniable.
In the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s staging of “La Damnation de Faust,” onstage at Symphony Hall through Saturday evening, Berlioz’s brilliant display of musical characterizations was fully realized by Dutoit, four solid soloists, and the impeccable Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Tenor Paul Groves sang the title role, with bass-baritone John Relyea as Méphistophélés, and mezzo Susan Graham as Marguerite. Baritone David Kravitz sang the role of Brander. The TFC, prepared by James Burton, was joined by the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, prepared by John Robinson.
Berlioz’s brilliant display of stylistic characterizations is an oratorio by any definition. He didn’t call it that, and perhaps some of a pious bent would object to a narrative detailing the utter victory of the devil being a religious subject. Although there are operatic stagings of the work, with engaged, theatrical soloists like these four, the narrative comes to life easily in an orchestral setting.
It is a taut, intense story of life, yearning and love—and folly. Goethe’s monumental work thankfully remains visible in the many musical settings of this sprawling tale of the dissatisfied philosopher who makes a fatal pact and pays the price. Berlioz’s “Damnation” is among the greatest of these.
Groves sang with force. Some of the range in this part proved too high for his comfort zone, and notes in his head voice sounded labored and unachieved at times. A post-concert message from BSO administration noted that he was suffering from a throat condition, which he only realized while onstage. But he engaged fully in the part, successfully portraying Faust’s shifts from solitary happiness to world-weary frustration to love, and eventually to doom.
Relyea had no trouble fitting his part into his instrument, and sang with dark authority. The vocal star onstage was clearly Graham, as she has been in many performances. Effortless, powerful, she not only delivered the notes, she wrapped her voice around the character. Her Marguerite sounded both tender and alive. Kravitz sang with great character in his one aria, the mock-epic of the rat’s death.
The male-dominated chorus brought multiple roles to life, and were responsible for the cohesion that made this an overall success. Variously portraying dancing villagers, marching soldiers, drunken revelers and babbling demons, Burton’s ensemble put its great preparation and versatile skill-set to great use.
There are many highlights in “Damnation”: the three main solo vocalists, and the multiple facets of the choral writing, of course. The instrumental score matches these with brilliant colorizations.
Solos abound. Violist Steven Ansell, duetting with Graham in the elegant “King of Thule” aria, played with verve, negotiating the tricky rhythms underpinning the moment. Robert Sheena’s English horn shown in multiple solos. Horns, onstage and off-, added fanfares, martial underpinnings, and many moments of alarm.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting, performs Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” this afternoon and Saturday evening at Symphony Hall. 888-266-1200; bso.org
CADENCES: The supertitle system frequently failed to function. One particular lapse, when Marguerite whispers “Folie,” after her dream of Faust, and before the noble “King of Thule” aria. The abrupt transition—for non-French speakers—got lost. Violas were seated front of stage left—perhaps to allow principal Steven Ansell’s beautiful duet in that aria to sound out.
Of note from previous BSO performances: Georg Henschel sang in the first complete American performance in 1880, which was led by Theodore Thomas (his Thomas Orchestra) in Boston Music Hall. Subsequently, as the BSO’s first music director, Henschel led excerpts of the work. Koussevitzky led the first complete BSO performance in 1934, and Arthur Fiedler prepared the Cecilia Society Chorus for that event. Seiji Ozawa began his BSO music directorship in 1973 with “Damnation,” and would lead many performances during his tenure.