Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, though not nearly as famous as his Symphonie Fantastique, is at least its equal in the ingenuity of its orchestral writing, and is emotionally far more varied. Faust superficially resembles an oratorio with its four vocalists (three male, one female), but the similarities end there. Its two-hundred-voice choir and massive orchestra (two harps and eight double basses, for starters) and its marches and ballet are reminiscent of the grand operas being written at the time by Berlioz’s contemporaries Giacomo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halévy. Faust’s vast orchestration, moving from the softest pianissimos to thunderous climaxes, gives us a clue as to how Grandville got the idea for his riotous caricatures of Berlioz’s music.
The libretto, which Berlioz wrote himself, is based on Part I of Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s poem and takes some amusing liberties, such as setting La Damnation’s first partie in Hungary for the sole purpose (it seems) of allowing the composer to recycle his Rákóczy March.But the core Faustian elements are there, and Berlioz works them in effectively.
In the Orchestre de Paris’ marvelous performances last week, the American tenor Paul Groves sung the title role with panache. He paired well with the bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, whose “Je suis l’esprit de vie,” in which Méphistophélès introduces himself to Faust during the latter’s suicide attempt, was darkly amusing. The bass Renaud Delaigue was a fine Brander, the innkeeper who sings about a rat (to Faust’s disgust) and to whom Méphistophélès responds with his flea song (to Faust’s further disgust). The mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes’ Marguerite was in pure voice, easily carrying above Berlioz’s voluminous orchestration. Her “Autrefois un roi de Thulé,” that still and strange aria foreshadowing her doom, was properly spooky, and the concertante viola line intertwining with her sad chant wild and feverish.
As good as the soloists were, though, the show was stolen by Tugan Sokhiev’s superb conducting and by the chorus’s near-instantaneous responses. The balance between the whole chorus and the orchestra, and among the individual choral sections, was outstanding, with crescendos and decrescendos perfectly formed and ritornellos all coordinated. It was like hearing a well-rehearsed quartet rather than a mass of musicians.
Declining to use a baton, Maestro Sokhiev communicates through expressions and gestures. Some of these are small, like his tapping his chin and his pointing to his chest; some moderate—his cradling swing in particularly lyrical passages, for example; and some oversize, as when he was dramatically urging the chorus, all the while speaking to the players with eyes, voice, and smiles. And the chorus and players responded: the Ballet des sylphs was hushed and graceful, and the Menuet des follets, where Méphistophélès sends his will-o’-the-wisps to enchant and seduce Marguerite, showed a superb interplay between flutes and violins. This was followed by an awe-inspiring Sérénade led by Méphistophélès. The voicing of the various parts, even in the loudest passages, was clear and distinct. The last number of the work, the sublime Apothéose illustrating Marguerite’s entry into Heaven, was accompanied by a chorus of celestial spirits and grew softer and softer with perfect balance—a small miracle of vocal and orchestral control. The audience was sufficiently moved that a full twelve seconds elapsed between the final echo of the last note and the first handclap.
Berlioz raised writing for solo voice and low instruments—double basses, trombones, and tubas—to the highest art. There are several such examples in Faust, and, as in other works, one often senses that Berlioz intends the voice to accompany the instruments, not the other way around. At any rate, it was very easy to succumb to that impression in these fine performances.