Boston has enjoyed an extended love affair with Hector Berlioz. Perhaps it’s his tart inner strings, or his ravishing winds (English horn in particular), or his clarion brass. Whatever, the BSO can boast a long line of Berlioz-friendly music directors, from Serge Koussevitzky to Charles Munch, Seiji Ozawa, and James Levine. Not to mention frequent guest conductors Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit. Thursday at Symphony Hall, Dutoit and the BSO took on one of Berlioz’s biggest challenges, the massive “dramatic legend” La damnation de Faust. The piece, which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1846, calls for four solo voices, a seven-part chorus, a children’s chorus, and Berlioz’s usual robust orchestra, here including cornets, ophicleide, snare drum, and tam-tam. Thursday’s performance, with soloists Susan Graham, Paul Groves, John Relyea, and David Kravitz, came as close to Berlioz heaven as it gets on Earth.
Faust actually had its American premiere in the Boston Music Hall, back in 1880, from the Thomas Orchestra under Theodore Thomas. Koussevitzky led the first BSO performance of the complete work in 1934, with a chorus directed by Arthur Fiedler. Munch and Ozawa conducted the piece with the BSO on numerous occasions, as well as recording it. Levine led the most recent BSO Symphony Hall performances, in 2007, Dutoit the most recent Tanglewood performance, in 2012.
The historical figure who inspired the Faust legend is such a shadowy figure, it’s not even certain whether he was one person or two. Johann Georg Faust appears to have lived in Germany in the late 15th and early 16th century, an alchemist and astrologer. Already by the 1590s, his legend had been elaborated into Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The multitude of Fausts, literary and musical, that followed include Goethe’s two-part drama (1808 and 1832), Schumann’s oratorio Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” (1853), Liszt’s Faust-Symphonie (1857), Gounod’s grand opera (1859), Part II of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, and, with a little imagination, Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat and The Rake’s Progress.
The young romantic Berlioz was inspired by Goethe. By age 25, he had read Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Faust Part I; a year later, in 1829, he had composed his Opus 1, Eight Scenes from Faust. Berlioz quickly recalled the piece; his official Opus 1 is the Waverley Overture. But Dutoit has recorded Eight Scenes, you can find it at Amazon and on YouTube, and in any case most of this early work was incorporated into Damnation.
By 1845, when Berlioz got down to expanding his original conception, he knew what he wanted to do, and it didn’t take in much of Goethe’s cosmology, philosophy, or religion. The mid-19th-century adaptations of Goethe’s drama went their separate ways. Schumann focused on Part II (as did Mahler a half-century later). Liszt created a symphonic poem (which he dedicated to Berlioz) with Faust as the first movement, Marguerite as the Andante second, and Mephistopheles as the scherzo-like third; he rounded it off with a brief “Andante mistico” in which a tenor and male chorus sing Goethe’s closing “Alles vergängliche.”
Berlioz’s vision was closest to Gounod’s, though given that Damnation runs some two hours as opposed to the three of Gounod’s Faust, some discretion was in order. Damnation has just four personae: Faust, Marguerite, Mephistopheles, and the student Brander, who disappears after singing his “Rat” song. Berlioz’s Faust is not driven by the quest for knowledge; it’s emotion he craves. There’s no initial bargain with Mephistopheles; the devil simply appears, after Faust has been “reconquered” by the chorus’s Easter hymn, and promises to satisfy his most ardent desires. Only near the end, when Marguerite is in prison for inadvertently poisoning her mother (she only meant for mom to sleep through her trysts with Faust), does Mephistopheles offer to save her in exchange for Faust’s promise to serve him “tomorrow.” Here, as in Goethe and Gounod, Heaven redeems Marguerite; Mephistopheles doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.
Goethe’s Faust is eventually saved, in part through Marguerite’s intercession. The fate of Gounod’s Faust is unclear; he falls prostrate and Mephistopheles stands over him without claiming his soul. Berlioz’s Faust believes that, after signing Mephistopheles’s parchment, they’re off to save Marguerite, but Mephistopheles is actually taking him straight to Hell.
Damnation was composed in four parts. Like Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, it proceeds via set pieces. From Goethe’s text, Berlioz took the lusty peasants’ dance, Brander’s “Rat” song, Mephistopheles’s “Flea” song, the soldiers’ song about how towns and young ladies both invariably surrender, Faust’s reverie in Marguerite’s room, Marguerite’s chanson about the King of Thule and her “Spinning Song,” and Mephistopheles’s serenade warning young maidens to wed before they bed. Throw in the famous Hungarian March, the Ballet of the Sylphs, the Minuet of the Will o’ the Wisps, the love duet, and the triumphal procession of the Damned and the Demons, and there’s not much room for characterization.
Marguerite, who doesn’t even appear till Damnation has passed the halfway mark, suffers the most; one can understand why a critic attending the Paris premiere called her “a vulgar heroine who indulges in all the exaggerations of melodrama.” She does enjoy pride of place at the end, when the Celestial Spirits welcome her into Heaven as “a simple soul whom love misled.”
But Damnation is Faust’s tragedy. He can find temporary solace in nature and religion, but he’s isolated from other people, and that’s why he’s damned. Marguerite has her “sisters, the Seraphim”; Faust has to go to the devil to find someone to hang out with. He wants salvation, and he calls Marguerite his “adored angel,” but even after seducing her he never produces that wedding ring. Unable to embrace life, he’s on the fast track to Heaven or Hell.
Since conducting that Damnation at Tanglewood, Dutoit has led the BSO in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in 2014 at Symphony Hall and his Te Deum this past summer at Tanglewood. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a better active Berlioz conductor. This composer requires balance and breathing room; otherwise those slinky rhythms and modal harmonies and luscious textures just clot. Dutoit is spacious but not stodgy; there’s an ebb and flow to his phrasing. Every instrument seems to bask in his spotlight, to express its own personality. And he can create a slower mood without adopting a slower tempo — he’s the master of the moment without sacrificing the architecture of the whole.
That last virtue was evident Thursday in the languid opening viola phrase, played, as Berlioz marked, “dolce ed espressivo.” It’s a surprising beginning; you expect a bit of introduction, but at measure 8 Faust enters, roaming a Hungarian field at sunrise, rejoicing in the “gentle morning breeze.” Berlioz’s Fausts can be febrile and melodramatic. Dutoit’s Faust, Paul Groves, gave us gravity and passion; the philosophical Faust who was missing from the libretto was audible in Groves’s singing. His easy power carried to the back of the second balcony, where I was sitting, and his rich, rotund tenor was an excellent match for Berlioz’s ripe orchestration. Rather than holding his score, he had it on a low music stand, and though he glanced at it from time to time, he sang to the audience.
The other soloists also sang to the audience rather than to their scores, and they were equally rewarding. John Relyea’s Mephistopheles might have come from the depths of Hell. Relyea’s voice made a palpable contrast with Groves’s, and his authority as Mephistopheles was such that Faust cowered in his presence. He was humorous — a must if this role is to make any impression — in his “Flea” song at Auerbach’s cellar, and then so heartrending in his “Here are roses” lullaby, you had to think he was a fallen angel rather than a career devil.
Brander has little to do other than sing his song about the rat for whom poison is a kind of love; David Kravitz did it with evident sympathy for the rat. As for Susan Graham, if the critic at the premiere had heard her Marguerite, he could have had no complaints. She was warm and direct, young in spirit, liquid in “King of Thule,” hypnotic and melting in “Love’s burning flame” (Goethe’s “Spinning Song”), where Marguerite is accompanied by English horn. Pungent in tone and breathtaking in his phrasing, Robert Sheena was every bit the equal of her singing; there wasn’t so much as a whisper from the audience during this number, or from some seconds afterward. Rather than singling Sheena out during the curtain call, Dutoit brought him stage front, a distinction he fully deserved.
Graham didn’t just sing like an angel; she acted like one. When Faust and Marguerite first met, she and Groves held hands, and at the end of their duet, when Mephistopheles interrupts the couple as Marguerite is singing “I’m dying,” Graham actually looked about to expire. At the end of the scene, she put the briefest caressing hand to Groves’s side before sitting and putting her head down. Nothing could have been less vulgar or melodramatic.
Berlioz’s chorus has to be pretty much everything: peasants, choristers, drinkers, soldiers, students, gnomes and sylphs, will o’ the wisps, Marguerite’s neighbors, the denizens of Hell and finally Heaven. Singing on book, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under James Burton, was full-bodied and ticked every box. The section where students and soldiers sing together, the students in Latin and the soldiers in French, presented no problem; neither did the scene in Pandaemonium where the Damned and the Devils sing in an infernal language (words like “trudinxé” and “omévixé”) that Berlioz invented. For Marguerite’s glorification, the TFC was joined by the superb Choir of St. Paul Church (Harvard Square), under John Robinson. The kids sang off book. Yes, theirs was a much smaller part.
Here’s a taste of the “Ride into the Abyss” from last night.
Dutoit excelled when there was singing and when there wasn’t. He was patient with the Hungarian March, building from a jaunty start to a strutting, swaggering finish. The fugal “Amen” with which Auerbach’s drinkers conclude the “Rat” song had an ironic grandiosity. Dutoit’s Ballet of the Sylphs was a gossamer lullaby; the Minuet of the Will o’ the Wisps became “Presto e leggiero” when marked. Marguerite’s glorification was suitably celestial.
The timing overall was 130 minutes, at the long end of the spectrum in a performance that never felt long. The English supertitles were well synched but on occasion puzzling. When the drinkers sing “How good it is when the heavens thunder / To stay close by a flaming bowl,” we got “How good it is, rain or shine / To stay close to a flowing bowl.”
Still, if a live performance of Damnation could save Faust, this would be it.
Charles Dutoit and the BSO will repeat this program Saturday October 28 at 8 p.m.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.