, August 2006
Compared to Gounod’s opera Faust, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust is a miracle of compression. Where Gounod concentrates on the novelettish relationship between Faust and Marguérite, Berlioz is interested in Faust’s state of mind. Though both works use traditional forms (marches, peasant choruses, drinking songs, choruses of students), Gounod’s opera simply incorporates them as local colour whereas Berlioz uses them to hold up a mirror to Faust’s state of mind, hi-lighting his ennui and despair. The result is surprisingly discursive at times. Berlioz does not introduce Marguérite until nearly half way through the work. And when she does appear, Berlioz contents himself with showing Marguérite and Faust meeting just once.
This distinctive combination of compression and discursiveness is typical of Berlioz the dramatist, Les Troyens displays the same characteristics. But in La Damnation de Faust Berlioz introduces an element that would be a feature of his non-stage dramatic works: the use of the orchestra as an additional protagonist.
The shape of La Damnation de Faust was determined by Berlioz’s decision to base the work on his earlier eight scenes from Faust. Some other elements were thrown into the mix, such as the arrangement of the Rakoczy march; to include this, Berlioz relocated the opening scene to the plains of Hungary. A conductor must, therefore, have a secure grasp of the shape and dramatic form of the work if it is not to degenerate into a sequence of attractive episodes.
Jean-Claude Casadesus, on this new recording from Naxos, is not quite in the Colin Davis class, but he projects a coherent view of Berlioz’s dramatic legend and never loses sight of the fact that incidental delights should not be lingered over too long. He is well supported by his orchestra, L’Orchestre National de Lille, with whom he has recorded a number of Naxos discs including two previous ones devoted to Berlioz. The orchestra are not European top class, but they play Berlioz with style and distinction. The string tone does not have the sheen and finesse of the finest European bands, but they are expressive and supported by some fine woodwind solos, particularly the cor anglais in Marguérite’s long scena in part 3. Whilst orchestras nowadays rarely preserve distinctive regional timbres it is good to have such music played by a French orchestra under a French conductor with predominantly French soloists. Though for some reason, perhaps economic, the chorus is the Slovak Philharmonic Choir.
The most astonishing section of the work is the closing one, with Méphistophélès and Faust’s ride to Hell and finally Marguérite’s glorification. Here Casadesus falls down slightly as the work comes over as a little routine and not terribly astonishing. In other hand the scenes in Hell are completely remarkable and thrilling. The final apotheosis is also a little disappointing, but I suspect this might be because the orchestra are not using quite the number of harps that Berlioz specifies; at least the harps seem a little under-powered.
Marie-Ange Todorovitch makes a warm, slightly homely-sounding Marguérite. But at the opening of her solo D’amour l’ardente flamme her tone changes miraculously and we understand that she has been touched by love. As Méphistophélès, Alain Vernhes is wonderfully characterful and sounds distinctly French, which is of course an advantage. His voice is rather grainy, not a bad thing in itself but he does not quite manage the suaveness that the role needs for such moments as his serenade. Still, this is a notable and highly characterful performance. René Schirrer is under-used in the small role of Brander.
The only non-French speaker is the tenor Michael Myers as Faust. Myers is best in the opening and closing scenes where he vividly portrays Faust’s world-weariness and finally, his despair. But in his scenes with Marguérite, his voice lacks the freedom in the upper register necessary to convince as the ardent young lover. His portrayal is creditable without ever being completely gripping.
The choir’s contribution is pretty strong, though I would have liked a rather more distinctive French timbre to the sound. But this is a creditable and convincing performance by predominantly French forces; as such it is worth finding room for on the library shelves.