Tuesday 21 January 2020

Berlioz’s ‘La damnation de Faust’ at the Philharmonie de Paris turned out to be a flaming affair unlike its first Parisian performance in December 1846 that turned out to be a bit of a damp squib

Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, 1845
Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, 1845, the year before
the premiere of La damnation de Faust
Berlioz La damnation de Faust; Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Renaud Delaigue, Karine Deshayes, Paul Groves, Orchestre de Paris, Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, dir: Lionel Sow, Chœur d’enfants de l’Orchestre de Paris, cond. Tugan Sokhiev; Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 15 January 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The subject of Faust is often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture, the other being Don Giovanni. The tragic story of this doomed character became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century and Berlioz is up there with the best

I’m in league with the devil, it seems! Old Beelzebub has stalked me a few times over the past year. I travelled to Nice for a well-staged production of Gounod’s Faust [see Tony's review] mystically and darkly directed by Nadine Duffaut for Opéra de Nice but, closer to home, I attended a semi-staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress [see Tony's review] at the Aldeburgh Festival featuring a young and enthusiastic cast recruited from Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists’ Programme.

But, like a good ’un, he kept his fangs deep into me and tracked me down on the East Sussex Downs where I witnessed an excellent and innovative staged production of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne [see Tony's review] directed by Richard Jones marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

And, now, with the New Year - and fresh new souls to prey on - he’s up to his old tricks again and nabbed me in Paris where, sitting comfortably in my seat in the grand surroundings of the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of the Philharmonie de Paris.
At the Philharmonie on 15 January 2020, I attended a marvellous concert performance of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust under the baton of Russian-born conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, with the Orchestre de Paris and soloists Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Renaud Delaigue, Karine Deshayes, and Paul Groves.

Overall, I champion the music of Berlioz who, incidentally, was struck on the Faust legend after reading Goethe’s Faust in 1828 in a translation by Gérard de Nerval and, of course, the inspiration for La damnation. I’m equally struck on the legend, too. It has bugged me for years and I well remember my first operatic encounter with the Faustian subject. It came about by attending a good touring production of Gounod’s Faust by the Carl Rosa Opera Company at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1958 - 11th April to be precise. It made a big impression upon me and actually got me hooked on opera.

Often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture, the other being Don Giovanni, the tragic story of Faust became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Countless works were inspired by the myth including the likes of Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Part II of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

Originally, a concert-opera, La damnation de Faust became with expansion a ‘légende dramatique’ (a term coined by Berlioz) in four parts. By the time it was written, the composer had found fame by his masterful trio of works - Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet.

However, Berlioz always wanted the work to be staged and, in this respect, the première fell to the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in December 1846. The performance, though, was a bit of a damp squib due to its status, perhaps, of being part-opera, part-cantata. Understandably, Berlioz was greatly disappointed but, really, I think he would have joyfully endorsed and relished this latest Parisian concert performance.

Berlioz wrote for large musical forces but none comes larger than those recruited for this concert version of La Damnation. For instance, the Orchestre de Paris numbered well over 100 plus the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris comprised a battalion of 172 singers and on top of this immense musical force there was a children’s choir and young person’s choir. Berlioz en fête!

As for the team of soloists it was the Italian bass-baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Méphistophélès who, in one way or another, ran away with the show. He certainly put in a commanding and assertive performance of this conniving character sporting a red-corduroy pair of trousers denoting the tools of his trade. He hogged the limelight. But, as always, the devil has all the best tunes. And, in this respect, Mr D’Arcangelo delivered good renditions of them especially to that catchy tune, the Song of the Flea, whilst showing the sinister (but suave) side to his devilish character in the scene in Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig where he meets and greets Faust taking him on his long journey to destruction and despair.

The scene in which Méphistophélès actually nails Faust to the mast capturing his poor soul with the vision of Marguerite was brilliantly executed and the French mezzo-soprano singing the part of Marguerite, Karine Deshayes, couldn’t have been bettered. She harbours a wide vocal range while her articulation and presentation was second to none. By all accounts, a big favourite with Parisian audiences, she won plaudits for her performance at her curtain-call that was so justifiable no doubt fuelled by her tender and delicate rendering of the ballad about the king of Thule (La Roi de Thulé), a highlight of the whole work.

Another telling (and catchy) number, the Song of the Rat (Chanson de Brander) lit up the stage, too, sung with gusto by French bass, Renaud Delaigue, in the role of Brander, the landlord. Paying tribute to a dead kitchen rat the song (which has earned the distinction of a place among the top ten operatic drinking songs) ends with the sublimely-twisted closing chorus of ‘Amen’ so graciously sung by the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris under the direction of Lionel Sow.

Alas, the central character of Faust, sung by American tenor, Paul Groves - taking over the part from Jean‐François Borras - proved slightly disappointing. A difficult role, for sure, Mr Groves - who, by the way, harbours a good pedigree and has sung leading roles with major opera-houses throughout the world ranging from Boston Lyric to Vienna State - suffered badly from intonation problems and his voice didn’t take too kindly to the high writing of Berlioz’ challenging score. But that’s how it was on the night. And that’s how it stands.

However, members of the orchestra found themselves on top form and played triumphantly not just the big set-pieces such as the Hungarian March (Rákóczi March) - an 18th-century melody heard at the beginning of the work - but also the hair-raising Ride to the Abyss (La Course à l’abîme) a wild, reckless galloping ride towards eternal damnation. They delivered sensitive and delicate readings of the work’s more gentler and lyrical passages, too, such as the Dance of the Sylphs (Ballet des sylphs) which was so joyously pleasing to hear under the baton of Maestro Sokhiev - taking charge of a brilliant and memorable performance - in the confines of the welcoming and spacious Philharmonie de Paris harbouring such rich acoustics and, indeed, good sight-lines, too.

Farewell Berlioz on his 150th and welcome Beethoven in his 250th!

Elsewhere on this blog
  • From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic (★★★★) - concert review
  • Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard  - cd review
  • European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s (★★★★) - CD review
  • An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero - concert review
  • Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov (★★★★) - concert review
  • An anarchic approach to the everyday: Bastard Assignments debut album (★★★½) - CD review
  • Songs from the Soil: Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
  • The music around him: a look at Mozart as he writes Mitridate, Re di Ponto in The Mozartists '1770 - a retrospective' at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Handel Uncaged: chamber cantatas revealed in new context by Lawrence Zazzo on Inventa (★★★★½) - Cd review
  • Haydn’s The Creation at the Bartók National Concert Hall (Müpa Budapest) by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Purcell Choir produced a memorable performance under Ádám Fischer (★★★★) - concert review
  • The other concertos: Mendelssohn's Double Concerto & Piano Concerto No. 1 from the Stankov Ensemble (★★★½) - CD review
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