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Berlioz,  La damnation de Faust : Marguerite – Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Faust – Marcel Reijans (tenor), Méphistophélès – Peter Rose (bass), Brander – Patrick Bolliere (baritone), Voix céleste – Sarah Tynan (soprano), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Bristol Choral Society, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 4.4.2008 (GPu)


Berlioz’s fascination with Goethe’s Faust was early and enduring. In his Memoirs he calls his first encounter with the book “a landmark” in his life. Reading Faust in the translation by Gérard de Nerval, writes Berlioz, “made a strange and deep impression on me. The marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down, I read it incessantly, at meals, at the theatre, in the street”. His first musical response was his Eight Scenes from Faust, published at Berlioz’s own expense. Though it has been described by Ernest Newman as “the most outstanding Opus 1 that the world of music had ever known”, Berlioz himself soon came to think of the work as “crude and badly written” and recounts in the Memoirs how he “rounded up all the copies [he] could get hold of and destroyed them”. Goethe’s work was one of the influences on the Symphonie fantastique and left its mark elsewhere on Berlioz’s writing. By the time that he came to give Goethe’s drama a central place in another composition, he did so having thought about the text and its significance profoundly and over a period of many years; Faust was, as it were, thoroughly interiorised for Berlioz, having become one of his central ways of thinking about the world and himself. La Damnation de Faust, légende dramatique, Berlioz’s Opus 24, was largely written during his journey to Germany in 1845 and premiered – in a half-empty Opéra-Comique in Paris – in December 1846. Fortunately, the indifference with which it was received than has since been replaced by much greater enthusiasm and understanding. Certainly enthusiasm was not in short supply at the end of this electric performance conducted by Thierry Fischer.

Throughout, Fischer elicited impassioned playing and singing from his large forces, and was able to maintain a springiness of rhythm (where appropriate), avoiding the luxuriating stodginess that can so easily infect performances on this scale. The choral contributions were generally of a high order (not least in ‘Tradioun Marexil fir’) and orchestral passages such as the Rákóczy March and the Minuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps (what a splendidly eccentric piece it is!) were played with a convincing sense of idiom and engaging vivacity. Fischer’s team of soloists also served him well. As Marguerite Sarah Connolly was quite magnificent – this was one of the very finest interpretations of the role that I have heard. Connolly sang with intense commitment and expressivity, but also with unfailing vocal control. To ‘Que l’air est étouffant’ and ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’ she brought a radiance of voice that was quite startlingly beautiful (and how perfectly the writing for solo viola made its contribution to the Ballad, a touch very characteristic of Berlioz). After the initial innocence of these pieces, Connolly brought a profound weight of emotion to ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’, her higher notes translucent, the lower ones rich without the slightest hint of heaviness, providing a purely human emotional substance to the work, a dimension which can sometimes get lost amongst the sheer excitement and colour of so much of the music and the supernatural imagery of so much of the text.

As Faust, Marcel Reijans sang with an attractive lyricism which was particularly effective in Parts One and Two, not least in Scene 1’s rhapsodic greeting of spring (‘Le vieil hiver a fait place au printemps’). In Scene 4, when alone in his study (‘Sans regrets j’ai quitté les riantes campagnes’) there was a moving poignancy to his expression of Faust’s sense of isolation, a central feature of Berlioz’s conception of his protagonist’s character and situation (and, indeed, those of Marguerite and Méphistophélès too, in their different ways). In his early dealings with Méphistophélès, Reijans created an ambiguous sense of vulnerability and heroism. Later on, in Parts 3 and 4, there was a greater sense of struggle in Reijans’s singing, some of it apt enough to the plot and the emotions, but some of it also seeming to be the product of vocal strain and tiredness. I have heard more powerful accounts of ‘Nature immense, impenetrable et fière’, where Reijans fell just short of the full heroic demands of the words (Berlioz’s own). On the whole, however, his was a moving reading of the role, if not quite of the very highest order in terms of sheer vocal quality. Peter Rose looked (dressed all in black, against the virginal all-white of Connolly’s Marguerite) and sounded a splendidly insidious Méphistophélès. This was another fine piece of vocal characterisation, communicating not only a superficial sense of mockery, but also the sense both of profound evil and of Méphistophélès’s equally profound awareness of what he, as a fallen angel, has lost. This emotional and (to a degree) moral ambiguity permeated all of Rose’s contributions and gave an impressive subtlety to his performance. This was a Méphistophélès who could be both lyrically persuasive and mockingly maledictory, a figure well calculated to control the dangerously idealistic and already troubled Faust.

The minor roles in this Damnation were luxuriously cast with singers of high quality. As Brander, the Belgian Patrick Bolleire (who was a late replacement for Jonathan Lemalu) gave a mordantly gleeful reading of ‘Certain rat, dans une cuisine’, full of dark humour and effectively counterpoising the slowly disintegrating mental stability of Faust. At the close, up on high in more senses than one, Sarah Tynan’s Voix céleste summoned the soul of Marguerite to heaven in tones both alluring and pure.

Most of the ‘parts’ then, were very good indeed. And, better still, the whole was more than merely the sum of them. There was a strong sense of organic unity to the whole, a sense of the musical and poetic working out of a coherent artistic and moral entity, for which Thierry Fischer’s conducting must surely take much of the credit. In Fischer’s control of orchestral colour and dynamics, in his responsiveness to Berlioz’s startling contrasts and quasi-symbolic use of certain instruments (as in the trombones so often associated with Méphistophélès) – in these and other respects this was a very intelligent and well-judged reading of a complex work. With the quality of the team of soloists and the high competence and commitment of both choirs and orchestra added to Fischer’s vision, we were treated to a memorable performance of a remarkable work, surely one of the highest achievements of musical romanticism.

Glyn Pursglove


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