June 29, 2006


Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust. Marie-Ange Todorovitch, mezzo-soprano; Michael Myers, tenor; Alain Vernhes, baritone, René Schirrer, bass; Slovak Philharmonic Choir and Orchestre National de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust, is about redemption through knowledge, eventual acceptance by the holiest of holies so long as one’s striving never ceases, and – by no means coincidentally – the regeneration of humanity, through a combination of all that is best in the Europe of Goethe’s own time with the greatest accomplishments of antiquity, represented by the love between Faust and Helen of Troy.

     You would never know any of this from most musical versions of Faust.  Gounod’s well-known opera is strictly an earthly love story, at the end of which Marguerite is saved and Faust and Méphistophéles ride off.  It is based entirely on Part I of Goethe’s monumental work.  So is Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust – even though Berlioz was familiar with Part II and well aware that Faust is eventually saved, not damned.  Ever theatrical in outlook, Berlioz thought the contrast between a saved Marguerite and damned Faust – the latter yelled at in Hell in a made-up patois believed by Emanuel Swedenborg, the mystic and philosopher, to be “the infernal language” of demons and the damned – would be more effective than a work following Goethe’s Faust more carefully.  Besides, older versions of the story did show Faust condemned to Hell.

     And so we have La Damnation de Faust, a brilliantly orchestrated not-quite-opera: the composer called it a “Dramatic Legend.”  There are three primary soloists and one secondary one, who appears in a single scene.  There are choruses, including one in Latin; there is a opening in Hungary rather than Germany (allowing Berlioz to include his famous orchestration of the “Rakoczy March”); and there is a dramatic climax in which Faust, thinking he is riding to Marguerite’s rescue, rides straight to Hell instead.

     It is all a bit of a mishmash, but it has many lovely elements, on which the performance directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus focuses.  The quieter sections are the best ones here, including a truly ethereal “Dance of the Sylphs” as well as Marguerite’s songs and duets with Faust.  Marie-Ange Todorovitch has a fine, dusky voice that is especially effective in its lower register.  As Méphistophéles, Alain Vernhes is sardonic and sarcastic, fully appreciative of the ironies of his words (Berlioz wrote most of the libretto himself).  And René Schirrer does a fine job with the small role of the drunken Brander, singing the famed aria about a rat that leads Méphistophéles to sing the even more famous one about a flea.

     Unfortunately, there is a weak point in the production, and it is Faust himself.  Michael Myers sounds petty, not world-weary, from the start, and seems to be moved throughout by anomie, not a quest for knowledge or experience.  When he first dreams of Marguerite and calls out her name, he does start to display more emotional intensity, and there is tenderness in his scenes with her.  But as the central character of this not-quite-opera, he falls a bit flat.

     Still, the chorus sings well, the orchestra plays adeptly, and if Casadesus underplays some of the dramatic sections (the “Rakoczy March” actually sounds a bit dull, a well-nigh impossible “achievement”), he extracts much of the beauty and sensitivity of Berlioz’ score – and the score has a great deal of both.

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