Dallas — On Thursday the Dallas Symphony gave us the opportunity to hear a rarely performed masterpiece, The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, based on Part One of Goethe’s influential drama about the downfall of Faust. The devil easily accomplishes this using nothing more than human frailty, and the awesome power of male lust, to defeat him. This story is so ingrained into the unconscious of society that the phrase “a Faustian bargain” is universally used for the willingness of an individual to give up anything in the pursuit of an irresistible goal, such as power, money or sex.
This common knowledge of the plot freed Berlioz from the requirement of presenting the story step-by-step, as an opera would require. This allowed him to pick the scenes from the drama that he wanted to explore musically and to put them in an order of his own choosing. It also allowed him to include numerous purely instrumental “concert” pieces, such as the familiar Hungarian March and a disorderly drinking chorus. Such musical diversions would stop a stage opera dead in its tracks. Thus, his version of Faust was intended for a concert performance, like a plot-driven oratorio such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Berloiz called it a légende dramatique.
In spite of the inherent difficulty of doing so, the work has been staged as an opera with varying degrees of success. Modern stage techniques, such as projections, may allow for a better realization of the more fantastical sections, such as the fire ride into the depths of hell on flying horses, than was possible in the past. But you would still have to overcome the static and reflective nature of the work.
But, never mind what it isn’t.
The Damnation of Faust makes for an exciting evening of astoundingly original music. This was especially true on Thursday evening at the Meyerson Symphony Center as the large forces needed to perform this complex work assembled and, eventually filled, the stage.
The orchestra itself is expanded to accommodate Berlioz’s inflated instrumentation. On top of that, this is an exceedingly difficult score to play, but the DSO met every challenge. Likewise, the Dallas Symphony Chorus (Joshua Habermann, director) was marvelous, with especial kudos to the men who have a lot to sing. The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas (Cynthia Nott, director) only entered at the end, but did an admirable job of both quietly filing on and of singing once they got there. The score also calls for three major soloists and two minor ones (more about them later).
The announced conductor, the redoubtable David Zinman, cancelled for some unstated medical reason. However, the last minute replacement, Jacques Lacombe, turned in a surprisingly magnificent performance. The frame of his clear beat was mostly confined to the front of his body, saving bigger gestures for the biggest moments. There wasn’t a single wasted gesture; every movement was precise and communicative. Yet he produced an intelligent performance of great sweep and scope. Further, he gave the solo chairs room to play, adding their own individual musicianship to the overall effect of the whole.
He even conducted the audience. He stopped spontaneous applause, in the moments that it usually interrupts the flow of the music, with a crisply raised left hand at the same moment as his dramatic right-handed cutoff. Like every other gesture he made all evening, the audience instantly understood and compiled.
The casting of Laurent Naouri as Méphistophélés proved to be an inspired choice. While the other singers did a fine job, he was the only one who created a vivid character. His nonchalant and sassy delivery was inherently evil and cold as ice underneath his glib exterior. Vocally, he was more baritone than bass-baritone and parts of the score taxed the limits of his low range, but the top of the voice was thrilling. Every word was delivered in character and so believably that it was possible to forget that he was engaged in the artifice of singing them.
Tenor Charles Castronovo is perfect for the French repertoire. His rich voice has an Italianate ring and a forceful top, but he is also able to float incredibly soft high notes without resorting to full falsetto. All of the French tenor roles require this skill and so few singers today posses it. The role of Faust in this piece does not require the same dramatic range as that of Méphistophélés, but Castronovo summoned the hopelessness of an old man’s reflections on a disappointing life; turning it into the passion of young love and later, the realization of the disastrous results of his thoughtless acts.
As Marguerite, in relationship to the other two singers, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose seemed monochromatic. She has a real mezzo sound with lots of power but, even though she sang with great beauty, she didn’t bring much in the way of characterization to the role. But maybe that is Marguerite’s role in the drama. Perhaps she isn’t real but is an idealized female image, conjured by Méphistophélés, out of Faust’s own desires: beautiful, innocent, pure (and available).
Dallas-based Mark McCrory brought his stunningly rich bass voice to the smaller role of the barfly, Brander. The youthful soprano voice of Karen Wemhoener, appearing in the organ oft as the Voix Celeste, sang her few notes with remarkable clarity and projection.
The French text is projected, with opera-style supertitles, in a suitably understandable English translation.
Overall, the impact of this sprawling, strange and magnificent score is hard to describe in words. Audiences at the time were bewildered, but the fact that the orchestra declared it unplayable indicates that it hardly received a fair hearing. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and the advent of the LP recording process that Damnation reached a popularity its composer could only have dreamed about. Performances are still not common, partly because of the expense of the expanded requirements and the demands on the performers that usually requires additional rehearsal time. However, the ecstatic reception of the audience on Thursday evening should encourage some more frequent productions.
At Thursday’s performance we were informed of the death of Martha Peak, a great human and dedicated supporter of the performing arts (and artists on all levels), by a program insert. For those of us who knew her, the news is devastating, even though we knew she was in failing health. It is just that it is impossible to think of her as gone. Hopefully, the symphony will do something special in the near future to honor her incalculable dedication, impact and lasting influence.