July 28, 2012
by Michael J. Moran
Berlioz called his “Damnation of Faust” a “dramatic legend in four parts,” but given its life-and-death text, its larger-than-life characters, and the passionate intensity of its music, he could just as aptly have called it an opera in four acts. The concert performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under frequent BSO guest conductor Charles Dutoit brought the score to vivid life in the suitably grand acoustics of the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
The orchestra was impressively joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite, tenor Paul Groves as Faust, baritone Sir Willard White as Mephistopheles, and bass-baritone Christopher Feigum as Brander, along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus, well prepared by their respective conductors, John Oliver and Andy Icochea Icochea.
The BSO has a long and distinguished Berlioz tradition, most notably under French music specialist Charles Munch, but among living conductors only Sir Colin Davis rivals Dutoit’s command of the composer’s singular style. This riveting account of “Damnation” featured a wide palette of instrumental colors, from the coarse tuba-like ophicleide with the drunken chorus in Auerbach’s cellar to the lovely solo viola that accompanies Marguerite’s plaintive song about the King of Thule. The sensitivity of Berlioz’s orchestration could be heard not only in the massive choral-orchestral passages but especially in the delicate sounds of three piccolos portraying will-o’-the-wisps and two harps evoking heaven in the final scene.
The contributions of the vocal soloists and choruses were consistently fine. Graham lightened her sumptuous tone to express Marguerite’s youthful innocence, then deepened it to summon the ecstasy of her romance with Faust and her grief when he abandoned her. Groves was by turns a movingly world-weary scholar, an ardent lover, and a tormented victim of his lust for life. White drew an often humorous, over-the-top portrait of Mephistopheles as a prankster who reveled in his deadly work, while Feigum sang a rousing “Song of the Rat” poisoned in Auerbach’s cellar.
Prolonged applause after the two-hour-plus intermission-less concert should alert BSO management that this large Tanglewood audience would welcome the presentation of more eccentric but rewarding masterpieces like this one.