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Friday, February 16, 2007

Starting off with a Damn

Hector Berlioz. Painting by Gustave Courbet

We went to three concerts this week, and I am going to try to start things off right by reviewing Monday night's performance of Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at Carnegie Hall.

Hector Berlioz was one of the geniuses of 19th century French music. Although he had many struggles in his career, he achieved great success with the Damnation of Faust, the result of 17 years of hard work on his part. After reading Goethe's Faust, he immediately set about composing it, conceiving an eight-scene drama. Eventually, the composer compressed the action and expanded the orchestral score, resulting in the four-act "symphonic drama" that became the most popular of Berlioz' large-scale compositions.

Although it can be performed as a fully staged work (and was the last time I saw this piece at BAM), the composer intended his work for the concert hall, not the opera house--and that is how this performance was staged, with singers and orchestra in tuxedos--with nary a pitchfork in sight.

Paul Groves, fresh off his performances in Tan Dun's The First Emperor was an able Faust, singing sweetly in the beginning and giving a powerful rendition of the callow scholar's fall from grace. He struggled with some of the high tessitura, but for the most part, his evening was a success. Wielding the pitchfork as Mephistopheles was the great Belgian baritone Jose Van Dam, now in his 60s but still velvet-voiced. He caught the sardonic humor undercut with cold steel that is needed to play this devilish role. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef was a decent Marguerite, singing a heart-wrenching "Roi de Thule" aria and a moving Spinning-song.

Mr. Levine conducted a well-balanced, carefully thought out reading of the score, anchored by a dulcet string section and powerful brass. Interestingly, a tuba was used in conjunction with an ophicleide, a kind of proto-tuba that Berlioz actually specified in his score. You don't hear ophicleides much in the concert hall, and its loud, rude honking was effective in the tavern scene. The chorus gave a knockout performance, especially in the Pandemonium scene where they portray capering demons, and all start singing in gibberish. Very Lovecraftian, that.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.