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
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
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.
This is not a library choice and anyone seeking a reasonably
priced version might well be better off seeking out Colin
Davis’s recording on LSO Live. But this is a creditable
and convincing performance by predominantly French forces;
as such it is worth finding room for on the library shelves.
see also review by Jonathan Woolf