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Recordings

Hector Berlioz: La damnation de Faust
05 Feb 2007

BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust

Why do some conductors make it and others don’t?

Hector Berlioz: La damnation de Faust

Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Marguerite), Michael Myers (Faust), Alain Vernhes (Méphistophélès), René Schirrer (Brander). Orchestre de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus.

Naxos 8.660116-17 [2CDs]

$15.98  Click to buy

Often luck and relationships play a more important role than talent. Lille (Rijssel in Dutch) is a magnificent city in the North of France and its architecture betrays the fact that for almost 800 years it was one of the four big cities of the county of Flanders till Louis XIV conquered it. The city had a fine opera house though until recently the company was in a bad patch and there was no season for several years. It is now slowly on its way back. In 1976 Jean-Claude Casadesus became the principal conductor of the newly formed Orchestre National de Lille to which ensemble he devoted a big part of his career. Of course he took conducting assignments elsewhere and I heard him conduct at the Flanders and the Walloon Opera. He struck me as exceptionally able in the French repertoire; having a lightness of touch without becoming superficial and I always thought he never got the career he deserved. He once more proves his mastering of such a score on this recording and one almost forgets that his orchestra is only second rate. The song of the flea gets the appropriate lightness while ‘L’amour, d’ardente flamme’ receives its portion of tragedy. Casadesus leads orchestra and singers in a way that makes ‘Damnation’ an opera, inevitably leading up to its redeeming end, instead of the somewhat unequal collection of arias, marches and ballet it can be in a lesser maestro’s hands.

It is a joy to finally meet Alain Vernhes in a big part on records. The French bass-baritone (and not a baritone as noted on the sleeve) had an unusual career. He became an opera singer but left the profession due to lack of engagements (not unusual in France for many years where ‘imports’ by definition were almost always considered to be better singers and where good French singers were often literally on the dole). After several years Vernhes tried again and this time he succeeded though as with Casadesus he didn’t get the big career. Although he is no longer young his rolling voice and tremendous acting capacities can still make quite an impression as I gladly noted last year when I heard him as Gounod’s Méphistophèles. Granted, the voice is somewhat rougher than José van Dam’s and his lower notes are, as proven on this recording, not his best ones. But he has the French style in his blood and masterfully characterizes each of his solos (sardonic in his flea song; threatening in his ‘devant la maison’) and he easily surpasses such exotic birds as Fischer-Dieskau, Lloyd or Pertusi. Moreover the voice is fuller than Cachemaille’s or Bastin’s and for those who don’t know him his interpretation will come as a nice surprise.

Michael Myers’ Faust is well-known as he already recorded the role in 1987 for Philips. The voice has become more manly and for a moment one confuses him with Gedda but the chinks in the vocal armour ( the voice becoming smaller above the stave; not always a firm line) soon tell the listener that Myers is somewhat of a poor man’s Gedda; especially if one compares with the early sixties highlights recording with Gedda and Rita Gorr.

Marie-Ange Todorovitch didn’t convince me. Yes, she is French and maybe a dugazon (a high mezzo like Von Stade or Von Otter) suits Marguerite better than a powerhouse like Gorr or Crespin but the voice has not enough beauty in it and sounds often somewhat slack. Her ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’ is unremarkable though she is more convincing in ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. Nevertheless I regret Naxos didn’t engage the formidable Béatrice Uria-Monzon whose performance in the house some years ago led me to believe here was Gorr’s successor. Sadly the lady is not much interested in recording as she told me herself.

Jan Neckers

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