Berlioz's music was often misunderstood during his lifetime, and La damnation de Faust was amongst his most roundly rejected works. However, this excellent performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine revealed it to be a stylish and intensely personal masterpiece.
Levine's technically immaculate and inspiring but undemonstrative reading revealed how skilfully Berlioz distilled the spirit of Goethe's Faust into a 'Dramatic Legend'. Instead of following the conventions of opera, Berlioz gets straight to the heart of the matter, with only a few bars of pastoral music by way of introduction to Faust's opening narrative. This is indeed a dramatic concert work rather than an opera - deliberately so - and although there are a few basic directions in the libretto to remind us what is happening (such as 'Faust moves off'), the focus is on a setting of the story whose essence is in music rather than action. Berlioz said that he would have to adapt the score if it were to be presented as a stage piece. This is not a hybrid or difficult work, as some have claimed (somewhat stupidly in my opinion - do people complain that Handel's Messiah doesn't have enough action?), but a consciously static dramatic symphony, a little like the same composer's Romeo and Juliet.
James Levine is an underrated conductor in my view. He may not be flashy to watch - the entire performance was conducted from a high chair - but his intentions are clear. There was none of the desperate, ostentatious posturing that some conductors who have nothing to say about a piece of music fall back on. As he is the long term Music Director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, it came as little surprise that he was a sympathetic and sensitive accompanist in this Faust; but that quality should not be taken for granted. The tempo choices were very natural - neither hurried nor ponderous - and the sounds he drew from the Boston Symphony, highlighting Berlioz's individual and haunting orchestration, were generally magnificent. In particular, the brass playing was the most sensational I have heard all season, with trumpets, trombones, tubas and horns all playing with secure tuning, excellent projection and an unusual accuracy with dotted rhythms; no wonder John Williams enjoys playing his brass-dominated film scores with Boston musicians. Three soloists stood out as exceptional: the bassoonist (Richard Svoboda), the lead cellist (Jules Eskin, who excelled in Marguerite's King of Thule Ballad) and particularly the cor anglais player (Robert Sheena) were nothing short of mesmerising.
The solo singers all had their flaws. But one could understand why Levine had chosen them, because they were all able to realise the spirit of his interpretation. Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani sounded a little exposed in the opening narrative and was hard pushed in the duet with Marguerite, straining at the top of the register. But these were unimportant, because his characterisation was so striking, making Faust into a rather noble and sympathetic figure. Faust's dilemmas, temptations and emotions were brought to life with care. There was much to admire in the singing, too: some exciting ringing tone above the stave; a seamless legato; and a strong projection. It was also admirable than Giordani made scarcely a reference to the score, considering that the part is so long and detailed. (For a recent interview with Marcello Giordani, click here.)
With José van Dam as Méphistophélès, one has to make the same kind of compromise as is the case with John Tomlinson's Wotan nowadays. The voice is past its prime and sounds forced and frayed at the top, but the level of intelligence and textual insight is well above the norm. This was an unusually elegant Méphistophélès, someone with a genuine psychological stronghold over Faust rather than a devil character with a trident. The menace was in restraint, and despite some exposed intonation Van Dam is still a bold and committed performer.
There were also some tuning problems with Yvonne Naef's Marguerite, but her luxurious tone is ideal for the French Romantic repertoire. Patrick Carfizzi made a strong impression in his brief appearance as Brander, perhaps struggling to produce solid tone at the bottom of the voice in the Song of the Rat but leading the drinkers in the exquisitely orchestrated fugal Amen with confidence and flair.
The Tanglewod Festival Chorus is an outstandingly well-drilled ensemble, performing from memory and with a homogeneity of sound and secure pitching that other more famous choirs struggle to achieve. The Finchley Children's Music Group made Margarita's Apotheosis a spellbinding end to the evening, the two young soloists belying their years with powerful projection, beautiful tone and idiomatic French.