Once more, the Metropolitan Opera has presented The Damnation of Faust, Berlioz’s work. The last time I saw it at the Met, Olga Borodina was climbing a ladder, looking terribly grim. The great Russian mezzo was portraying Marguerite, in a production by Robert Lepage. Marguerite was ascending to heaven. Borodina was clearly going through hell.
That was in the 2009–10 season. (For my review, go here.) Lepage’s production had premiered the season before, with James Levine in the pit. (Review here.) Two seasons before that, Levine had conducted a concert performance of the work in Carnegie Hall. The orchestra was the Boston Symphony, of which he was then the music director.
Here is a funny way of dating that performance (which was superb). At the end of my review, I wrote, “On Sunday, a woman named Faust was named president of Harvard. So it has been a good week for Fausts all around.”
The Damnation of Faust returned to the Met on Saturday afternoon, but Lepage’s production did not. The work received a concert performance. Why? “Unanticipated technical demands,” says a note on the Met’s website. The production apparently went kerplooie.
Sans production, the stage was bare, except for the soloists and the chorus, all of whom looked smart in their concert-wear. There were also four harps, two of which were red. You need harps when suggesting heaven in music.
The chorus, you could argue, was more focused—better than ever—in Berlioz’s often tricky music. They did not have to do any running around.
Consider this, too: In a concert performance, singers are sometimes overwhelmed by the big orchestra onstage with them. But what if you do a concert performance in an opera house, as the Met has? The orchestra is in the pit, resulting in an easier balance.
On Saturday afternoon, the cast members did a modicum of acting: Faust brooded, for example. What would opera—even The Damnation of Faust, a “dramatic cantata”—be without brooding? The bass-baritone in the small role of Brander, Patrick Carfizzi, was amusing and charming.
The big role of Faust was taken by Bryan Hymel, an American tenor. He has made a career in these French roles, and he is very good in them. At the Met, he sang beautifully and freely—until Berlioz’s music got merciless. In my experience, no tenor can manage these merciless notes without problems. In the 2008–9 season, I described Marcello Giordani as “pitifully strangled.” Who can help it? In any case, Hymel was an admirable Faust.
Our Mephistopheles was Ildar Abdrazakov, the Russian bass. He sang this role when Borodina was Marguerite. On Saturday night, he was just as expected: sly, suave, and Mephistophelean. For a foreigner, he has remarkable French savoir-faire. And I always marvel at his intonation, which is to say, its accuracy.
Marguerite—with no ladder to worry about—was Elīna Garanča, the Latvian mezzo. She rolled out her carpet of sound: smoky and sultry. This carpet does not necessarily go with the character, who is innocent and pure. (It goes with Delilah, for sure.) But Garanča’s sound no question goes with Berlioz.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an appreciation of Mariss Jansons, the late, great conductor. Allow me to quote a bit:
One of the best concerts I ever heard—from anyone, anywhere—took place in 2008. In Salzburg, Jansons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the following program: Webern’s Im Sommerwind; Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (in which the soloist was Elīna Garanča, the conductor’s fellow Latvian); and the Brahms Second. I wrote that this concert “stayed with me for days after, which is rare, I can tell you.” Frankly, it stays with me—though more in feeling than detail—even now.
One more thing, before leaving the subject of Garanča: I am not her mother, and I don’t mean to mother-hen her—but when she took the stage on Saturday, I worried that she had become too thin. “Don’t pull a Callas,” I thought.
Conducting The Damnation of Faust was Edward Gardner, from England. Above, I described James Levine as “superb” in his outing at Carnegie Hall, those years ago. So was Gardner. He hardly put a foot wrong, as his countrymen say. Sir Colin Davis, that great Berliozian, would have been proud. Gardner was intelligent, alert, and musical. He had a sense of French continuity, that horizontal feeling; he could also make the music stand up robustly, when that was called for.
Perhaps you know what I mean. These things are difficult to put into words. (No excuse, I realize.)
The Rakoczy March may seem like a simple affair—but it’s hard to get right, in tempo and character. Gardner did. (A woman in the first row of the chorus was smiling, and discreetly grooving to the music.) With Garanča, Maestro Gardner infused “D’amour l’ardente flamme” with excitement. And the final pages were perfectly prayerful and beautiful.
An orchestra has a lot to do in this work, with woodwind solos in high demand. The Met’s woodwinds proved worthy singers.
This is not the time or place for a discussion of Berlioz writ large. I addressed this issue, in a personal way, last year (here). But I will end by quoting from the review I wrote of Levine and the BSO, in February 2007:
Perhaps the biggest winner of the concert was The Damnation of Faust itself. Even those who aren’t hardcore Berliozians must recognize that this is a Romantic masterpiece (if you even need the qualifier “Romantic”). It brims with imagination on virtually every page. And it is a prize in the catalogue of Faust works, which bulges.