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Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]
01 May 2013

The Damnation of Faust, London

Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.

Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]


In their performance of the complete work at London's Royal Festival Hall on 30 April 2013, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought Berlioz's dramatic legend to life with a very fine quartet of soloists, Ruxandra Donose, Paul Groves, Benedict Nelson and Willard White, and the London Symphony Chorus. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, whose passion for the music of Berlioz was so important to its re-discovery in the 20th century.

La Damnation de Faust was a complete failure at its premiere in 1846 at the Opera Comique. Berlioz had been obsessed with Goethe's Faust ever since reading part one, in Gerard de Nerval's translation, in 1828. The result was his Opus 1, "Eight Scenes from Faust", and it was these that were eventually transformed into the compete La Damnation de Faust, with Berlioz writing his own text for Faust's invocation to nature in Part 4.

He transposed the location of Part 1 to Hungary so that he could include his Rákóczi March which had been a great success on concert tour in 1845. There are a number of other orchestra show-pieces in the work. Though Berlioz did not stretch the musical form as far as he would with Romeo et Juliette, he still produced a work which used the orchestra as an extra character in the drama and which gave the orchestra a starring role. The work left its first audience confused, and it wasn't until 1893 at the Opera de Montecarlo that anyone tried to stage it.

From the first notes of Charles Dutoit's performance it was clear that we were not going to need a staging. Dutoit drew playing of great beauty and great flexibility from his orchestra (he is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the RPO). There were a lot of them, 60 strings in all with triple woodwind. There was a nice sheen to the quiet playing, but a feeling of attention to detail to. Dutoit is a very alive conductor, clearly alert to every moment and he brought out all of the different layers of Berlioz's superb scoring. Granted there were some fine solo contributions (the viola in the King of Thule aria and the glorious cor anglais solo in "D'amour l'ardente flamme") but what impressed was the quality of every moment of the playing. This wasn't sheer look-at-me brilliance, but a rich subtlety devoted to Berlioz's music.

Dutoit often took a relaxed attitude to speeds, but this was very much a performance of vivid contrast with some passages being taken at quite a pace. There was a lovely bounce to all of the rhythmic passages in the orchestra, everything was alive and vivid.

The role of Faust is rather an impossible one. It is the style of early 19th century French tenor which requires power and flexibility in a high tessitura which combines in a killing combination. Flexible lyric tenors can sound underpowered at the crucial moments, dramatic tenors can lack the flexibility and the necessary ease at the top of the stave. In 1893 at Montecarlo the role was sung by Jean de Reske, a tenor who combined singing Tristan and Siegfried with Gounod's Faust and Romeo, a combination well nigh unimaginable nowadays.

Paul Groves seems to make a speciality of these combinations of power, focus and clarity of line. Recent roles have included the killer tenor part in Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide his performances and recording of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius have managed to evoke a lost tradition of tenor singing. At the Royal Festival Hall, his use of his score was minimal and he delivered a highly dramatically involved performance. It was clear that he was having to do some management of his voice in the higher passages, but he delivered a performance was was admirable for his clarity of line and beauty of tone. He brought the sort of nasal intensity to the line which is very French, very necessary and so rarely achieved.

Whilst, perhaps, we might have imagined a more relaxed voice in some of the quieter moments, in the moments of rapture such as the invocation to nature, Groves brought in power reserves whilst still preserving the essential integrity of the voice, he never opened up in an Italianate way. Here, I must bring in one criticism of Dutoit, who seemed to take no account of any potential balance problems. There were moments when Dutoit could have made life a little easier for Groves and for Willard White.

Willard White playing Mefistopheles, one of his signature roles, was a miracle. The singer is now in his mid-sixties but apart from a hint of occasional fogginess at the top his voice is still in a superb state. And he certainly knows how to use it. Barely looking at his score, White was acting the role of Mefistopheles even when not singing. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the stalls, so could see clearly how White constantly used his eyes, and his whole body. White's Mefistopheles was certainly not a comic figure, he was blackly sardonic and rather formidable. His dark, chocolatey sounding voice is perfect for this role, especially as he can move it around with relative ease, making a delight of the lighter moments.

He and Groves developed a good rapport so that the dialogue moments were well realised, moments of drama as vivid as what was happening in the orchestra.

Ruxandra Donose was a beautifully modulated Marguerite. She was profoundly touching in the King of Thule aria, shaping the phrases quite beautifully. She has a rather soft-grained voice and this added to the impression of the rather nice girl in too deep. She combined with Groves to give a flexibly impassioned account of the love duet, whilst never quite matching Groves for sheer intensity. Her performance of D'amour l'ardente flamme was lovely and rather moving, as far as it went. But if you have heard someone like Regine Crespin singing the aria, then you know that it is possible to bring far more intense pain into the piece. Donose seemed to stay within the envelope of a beautiful voice and I wanted her to push things a little more.

Young British baritone Benedict Nelson sang the role of Brander, giving us a well shaped performance of the aria, full of lovely tone.

The London Symphony Chorus were on strong form, responding to Dutoit's direction and giving us a lively and highly involved performance. I did rather think, though, that there were occasional moments when the details were a little smudgier than they might have been. But at the big moments, such as the Pandemonium, we were treated to choral tone of a glorious amplitude. For the final scene, the chorus was joined by the New London Childrens Chorus, who added their voices to the beauty of the moment.

Given this extravagance, it seems odd that Dutoit did not follow Berlioz's request with regard to the harps. Though there are only two harp parts in the score, for this final scene Berlioz requests four or five harps on each part. I have heard it performed so, when Mark Elder performed the work at the Proms in the late 1980's (when I was singing in the chorus). The result is brilliantly magical and its a shame that Dutoit and RPO deprived us of it. Still, what we did hear was glorious enough and provided a magical end to a fine evening.

It was good to hear the RPO back on form, and under Charles Dutoit giving a fine account of one of Berlioz's great scores.

Robert Hugill

Click here for cast and production information.

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