IN: Reviews

Damnation Worthy of its Long BSO History


Charles Dutoit, the elegant French/Swiss maestro, who thankfully has become a frequent BSO guest, led a large cast of singers and orchestra musicians in the latest chapter of the orchestra’s history with Hector Berlioz’s colorful and amazingly inventive La Damnation de Faust on Saturday evening, July 28th in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. Only a few minor disappointments kept this performance from achieving celestial heights.


The nonpareil playing credentials of the Boston Symphony’s Berlioz reach far back into its history. Performances of this score by James Levine, Seiji Ozawa and Charles Munch are rightly remembered for their subtlety, power, and virtuosity. Of those interpretations, one missed only Ozawa’s amazingly focused and precise direction, and  Munch’s seat-of-the-pants, almost improvisatory frisson.

The richness of the primary solo vocal trio, in which tenor Paul Groves found fertile ground for his strongly sung portrait of the philosophical and ultimately doomed Dr. Faust, yielding only once to a falsetto essay in one of the demanding role’s high notes. Admittedly, at times one yearned for a bit more differentiation of vocal color such as Stuart Burrows had brought with  Ozawa. Then there was the magnificent Sir Willard White, completely inhabiting the role of the cynical, sarcastic and ultimately triumphal Méphistophèles. Sir Willard’s every thoughtfully sung vocalization went toward creating an embodiment of cunning and evil. And what elegant vocalizations he offered!  In my experience, only José van Dam came as close as did Sir Willard in conveying the many diabolical sides of this remarkable villain, and with such vocal élan. Finally, there was the elegant Susan Graham, who brought extraordinary vocal savoir-faire to her portrait of the sexually compromised ingénue Marguerite, who is led so easily astray by the lustful Dr. Faust. Her honeyed tones and wonderful attention to language contributed to her almost ideal portrait of the naïve and ultimately wronged young woman.

Charles Dutoit displayed complete absorption of the music and its many demands. His understanding of the long arc of this multi-faceted music knitted together the many disparate elements — from a raucous subterranean bôite to a young lady’s boudoir to the yawning depths of Hell itself, he was the masterful guide.

One was grateful for the strength of the BSO’s brass section, which, to a person, had a wonderful evening in all it was asked to do. The silken strings, whose overall sound is rarely matched by other world-class ensembles, were in top form. And on an evening when several first-chair inhabitants were absent — among them, Malcolm Lowe, Jules Eskin, Steven Ansell, Timothy Genis — one appreciated those who were on stage, particularly Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; James Somerville, French horn; Thomas Rolfs, trumpet; the entire deep brass section anchored by Mike Roylance, tuba; Jessica Zhou, harp; and most especially the English horn of Robert Sheena, whose magically breathed pianissimo solo in the second verse of Marguerite’s RomanceD’amour, l’ardente Flamme had all present holding their collective breath. The elegant and deeply felt playing of first violist Cathy Basrak in Berlioz’s masterful mezzo-soprano  aria Le Roi de Thulé, reminded one, as of course did Susan Graham’s wonderful singing, of why this music is held in such high esteem.

The singers in John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus were wonderfully effective and believable in their many roles, whether embodying frolicking rustics, Eastertide penitents, inebriated students, manly soldiers, sleep-inducing spirits, dancing devils, or celestial spirits. An occasional weak entrance at one or two tricky points for the men was perhaps attributable to Maestro Dutoit’s conspicuously un-meddling conducting, which seemed to eschew multiple cues in favor of engendering a longer line with an un-subdivided beat. One thought that perhaps one more rehearsal would have helped solidify things a bit, but paucity of preparation time is a well-known Tanglewood challenge.

Then some quibbles:

There was inconsistent and sometimes just plain incorrect French pronunciation from some in the chorus: French de does not sound like “day,” but they were not the sole offenders. Mr. Groves had moments of pronunciation “creativity” as well.

Though Dutoit followed Berlioz’s explicit instructions in asking six chorus basses to sing the Epilogue, I find it more dramatically effective when sung by a solo voice. The TFC men who sang this on Saturday did so very well.  Also, I was puzzled by Dutoit’s toning down of the sibilants in the Pandemonium section. A chorus member told me that Dutoit had actually told the chorus to avoid sounding the final s of “Has!” Why on earth (or in Hell)?  Don’t those final esses help create the sense of the sizzling heat of the Abyss?

The most memorable:

The soft and delicate moments in this amazing score really made the evening for me. Dutoit seemed to emphasize the lyric side of the writing, so the soft and flowing music accompanying the first scene with its ingenious Hungarian March precursings, set the tone of much of what was to follow. The reverent and glowing tone that the TFC brought to their Easter Hymn was ravishingly beautiful, its blissful Hosannas ringing in the distance at its close. The moment after the vulgarities of Auerbach’s Cellar in which Faust and Méphistophèles “disappear in air” and eventually alight in the woods and meadows on the banks of the Elbe was airborne and translucently gossamer, played with precision and great beauty. This prepared the noble (seeming) Méphisophèlian aria Voici des Roses that introduces one of Berlioz’s most remarkable creations, theChorus of Gnomes and Sylphs” (Faust’s Dream), familiarly known as “The Sleep Chorus.” Sir Willard’s beguiling eloquence and tonal luster was matched by the miraculously soft singing of the six-part-divided TFC that, thankfully for once, was sung at he composer’s oft-ignored pianissimo dynamic. The ensuing Ballet des Sylphes,” with its two-harp, harmonic-studded accompaniment at its end, was a miracle of unanimity and pellucid sonorities.

Scene VIII’s finale, with its swaggering “Soldier’s Chorus” and the following chorus of lusty students in search of female companionship were aptly and liberally laved with testosterone by the TFC men. And the moment when Berlioz asks the two separate choruses to combine in mutual counterpoint was positively thrilling to hear.  Méphistophèles’s Scene XII “Évocation,” again imposingly intoned by Sir Willard, was mightily impressive, but no more so than the playing of the BSO in their ensuing accompaniment and the rightly famous “Minuet of the Will-O’-The Wisps.” At its presto et leggiero mark, flutes, piccolos and strings took off like a shot, flying with fleet virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy through the air and taking no prisoners.

And, of course, the hair-raising “Ride to the Abyss” with is positively animate low brass growling and the galloping, bow-bouncing strings depicting the two sulfurous steeds Vortex and Giaour, the plunge into Hell, the triumphant chorus of lesser Devils singing the uniquely hideous language that Berlioz created to celebrate their newly captured soul, was unforgettable. This is music like no other, before or since.

Finally the acrid smoke and flames of Hades fade away, and we witness the diametric opposite of what had just been so blisteringly presented. Now, Marguerite’s wronged and penitent soul rises to heaven and is welcomed there by an ethereal chorus of Celestial Spirits and Seraphic Children, during which a single Celestial Voice calls Marguerite’s name four times, in this performance nicely floated by TFC soprano Alexandra Harvey. And, with high and shimmering tessiturae, this utterly remarkable and forward-looking Berliozian masterwork from the composer’s 43rd year floated up and away, leaving wonder in its wake.

Charles Dutoit leads the BSO (Hilary-Scott photo)
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 32 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.



4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. N.B. Maestro Dutoit is Swiss.

    Comment by John Emery — July 31, 2012 at 10:01 am

  2. Right you are – I had just submitted a correction seconds before your comment posted!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — July 31, 2012 at 10:16 am

  3. Having been lucky enough to have attended last Saturday’s performance, I echo virtually everything you wrote, but I have to question your omission of Martial Singher as one of the great Mephistos of the BSO’s past. I was also lucky enough to be at that 1954 Tanglewood performance, and I wore out two copies of the Munch/BSO recording. Sir Willard White was undeniably magnificent, but for me Singher will always remain the inimitable Mephistopheles.

    Comment by Phiip Moss — August 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm

  4. I was present at one of those memorable BSO performances of Damnation, at Tanglewood in, I think, 1960, with Martial Singher as the superb Mephistopheles. At one point near the end, Charles Munch gave such a sweeping outward beat that Singher was compelled to jump aside; the audience laughed. What a great vocal artist he was. Does anyone remember that Ravel’s last work, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, includes a song dedicated to Singher?

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — August 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm

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