Goethe’s Faust has intrigued many 19th-century composers (including Gounod, who fleshed the story out in a fully staged, dramatic opera), but perhaps no vocal setting quite possesses such sophisticated sensitivity as Hector Berlioz’s “concert opera” or “dramatic legend,” adapted from his 1829 composition of Eight Scenes from Faust, set from extracted ballades, hymns and songs found in an 1828 French translation by Gèrard de Nerval. Dissatisfied with his efforts at that time, it would take years of stewing before Berlioz would develop this early material into a piece of appropriate magnitude and maturation for the thematic subject he had taken on, and did not return to it until 1845. Redrafted for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, intended for the concert stage as opposed to the theater, he successfully developed a more dramatic and ripened form in his La Damnation de Faust, Dramatic legend in four parts, op. 24, which premiered in December 1846.
Last Saturday evening in the Koussevitsky Music Shed under conductor Charles Dutoit, the Boston Symphony Orchestra combined forces with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the PALS Children’s Chorus soloists Susan Graham, Paul Groves, Sir Willard White, and Christopher Feigum to produce a spectacular performance of Berlioz’s Faust in its originally intended concert form. Although the production was not formally staged, choices were certainly made to visually present the story with considerable dramatic flair. As is traditional for the summer, male orchestra and chorus members wore traditional white shirts, jackets, and black pants, while women wore white. In contrast, Conductor Charles Dutoit wore understatedly casual, behind-the-scenes black. Cleverly, Faust and Brander wore white dinner jackets with black accents, while Mephistopheles wore tails with white vest, shirt, and bow tie. In a choral and orchestral sea of white, with the devil standing out in black tails, it was a stunning blush of color to see Marguerite make a delayed, dramatic stage-right entrance in a voluptuously pink gown and chiffon wrap illumined by golden hues, reminiscent of billowy clouds at sunset catching the light.
The concert opened with a simple, still beginning. Faust, sung by Paul Groves, a mature and powerful tenor with masterful facility, looked out at imaginary stars at dawn, his expression effectively painting a pastoral picture for the audience of what he saw, until an understated but unsettling fugue acts upon him and the listener. It represents a creeping depression that turns his world gray and joyless; he is unable to find peace, pleasure, or meaning in life. He seeks stimulation to no avail and vows to take his own life. Just before he nearly succeeds, he hears church bells, and the women’s chorus angelically enters.
It is at the moment at what should be Faust’s salvation from his own inner demons that evil takes form as the suave and charming Mephistopheles, which Sir Willard White more than certainly delivered. White’s bass-baritone voice has power, buoyancy, and controlled skill in this role with an onstage presence to match. He is both commanding and unequivocally compelling, as well the devil should be: a trickster, a seducer, capable of clever arguments and charming lies. Despite a noticeably jarring translation in the English overhead subtitles describing Mephistopheles as “pale with red hair,” there was never a question that the handsome, dark, gentleman before the audience is ruler of material forces and therefore illusion, possessing both the powerful charisma and insidious charm to tempt the weak into submission.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham gave a soulful performance as Marguerite. Her reputation for mastering French music shone through in her first aria, “Ballad of the King of Thule,” an emotionally intimate, strophic song, a deeply romantic tale of love, loss, devotion and endless yearning. Graham made Marguerite’s character and sensibility passionately believable. There were occasional moments when the melody would allow her to approach a higher register than her delicate middle range, lighting up with a shimmering sweetness as if it were a ray of morning sun peaking out from behind the horizon.
Throughout, the audience was exposed to a smörgåsbord of vocal sonorities from the chorus, representing villagers, soldiers, forest spirits, demons, and angels. Conscientious efforts were made to give distinctive vocal character to each collective group through facial expression and vocal timbre that was dramatically effective and highly commendable. The Chorus’s role in conveying both Faust’s damnation and Marguerite’s redemption were indispensable in building drama and elevating the audience to spiritual transcendence.
Although Berlioz did not attempt to take on Goethe’s subtler philosophical themes in the legend, his choice to treat Faust’s damnation with intense, dramatic fervor and salvation, and to offer Marguerite’s rise into heaven as an exquisite benediction rather than a glorious postlude, breaks away from any pat operatic devices and is one of the aspects of this piece that gives it such quiet sophistication. As Marguerite is pardoned, PALS Children’s Chorus was brought in, its addition conveying an aural expression of heaven’s goodness in its purest form. The children wore deep blue satin shirts, linking their innocence to Marguerite with the only other splash of color onstage. As angelic voices and harp trailed upward like a fading sparkle of silvery smoke, the audience was left in silence and awe, unsure when to clap. To hear such a professional performance live was to hear every detail of Berlioz’s orchestration brought to light with cliché-less beauty and imagination.
Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.