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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Opera Review: Hot Rails to Hell

The BSO brings back The Damnation of Faust.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Charles Dutoit (on podium) leads Paul Groves, Susan Graham and John Relyea in the trio from
Part III of The Damnation of Faust. Photo by Hilary Scott for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
I'm going open this review on a personal note.

Ten years (and change) age, I posted the first review on Superconductor, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Hector Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust. That concert (you can read about it here) was at Carnegie Hall under the baton of James Levine. In honor of that anniversary, I took an early morning Amtrak to Boston yesterday to see the BSO perform The Damnation of Faust.

It was worth the trip.

For those unfamiliar, The Damnation of Faust is Berlioz' crowning achievement, a "dramatic legend" (the composer's term) for orchestra, chorus and soloists. It is a retelling of the story of Faust, the elderly scholar who sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in an effort to achieve love and eternal youth. It is also the only version in which Faust is never redeemed: Berlioz casts him into the abyss at the end of the work. Marguerite, however is redeemed and ascends to heaven in the final bars.

Friday's concert was the second of three at Symphony Hall this week featuring the BSO under the 81-year old maestro Charles Dutoit. Mr. Dutoit, who has enjoyed a career-long association with Berlioz' works is still a vigorous and rigorous presence on the podium. He drew out the lyricism of the viola writing in the opening bars and whipped the players forward in the bustling Hungarian March. Lyric grace was present in the Ballet of the Sylphs and the astonishing transition to the act-ending Soldiers' Chorus was adroitly handled.

Symphony Hall was where I started going to concerts when I lived in Boston (way back in 1995.) And although I have a personal bias in the matter, I maintain that acoustically it may be the best venue in North America. Its crystalline sound and clever architecture (the statues around the auditorium are part of the sonic design) caused the orchestra to blend perfectly. Although the brass were blowing hard, they never once drowned out the strings. Indeed, the sections supported each other perfectly, and even the most extravagant passages of this score were revealed to have eloquence and power.

Paul Groves, who sang this role with the BSO ten years ago remains a fearless tenor with a bad habit of taking on works that are too heavy for his voice. Faust is one of these, with its difficult declamations over a heavy orchestra. He sounded sweet and pure of tone in the opening scene and made a convincing romantic lead. However, the strain was audible in his final aria, the Invocation to Nature which is the good doctor's last chance at redemption.

John Relyea was a superb Mephistopheles, a role he has sung many times. The tall, dark bass looks the part but more importantly he sounds it, singing with firm conviction in even the knottiest passages. His presence also jumped the energy level of the whole show. Susan Graham's Marguerite remains the gold standard of the role, the right mix of innocence and grief sung with pure, dusky tone and consummate musicianship.

Behind the singers, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was on point, delivering the difficult tasks that are set by Berlioz' remarkable libretto. This includes the onomatopoeiac laughter of peasants in the opening scene, the parodic "Amen" fugue in the tavern scene and the climactic Pandemonium, in which Faust is confronted by the powers of Hell itself singing in a made-up "demonic" language of repeated, unearthly syllables. Berlioz was, as usual, way ahead of his time.

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