This 1989 live performance
of Berlioz’s dramatic masterpiece marked the start of Sir Georg
Solti’s farewell tour as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
La Damnation de Faust is normally heard in concert performance
and is just, very occasionally staged as a full opera. Although
Gramophone gave the thumbs up to ArtHaus’s earlier DVD
release of the 1999 Salzburg Festival performance under Sylvain
Cambreling (ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 003), this reviewer was
singularly unimpressed by its weird sets, costumes and odd stage
management. Surely the text, as used by Berlioz, is vivid and
graphic enough to enable concert audiences’ imaginations to
take wing? And of course a DVD video allows a fuller appreciation
of Berlioz’s brilliant use of orchestral colour and the large-scale
This live Royal
Albert Hall Proms performance is very impressive. Solti’s reading
is rivetingly dramatic and he is supported by three excellent
soloists. The rhythms are lightly, yet tightly sprung, tension
never slackening; hear the brass blaze in the ‘Marche hongroise’,
the woodwinds dance in ‘Menuet de follets’ and listen to the
sheer ferocity and attack of the climactic Ride to the Abyss
as Méphistophélès triumphantly claims the soul of the deluded
Faust. The Chicago Symphony Chorus impress too, well-drilled,
fully committed, voices coloured to emotions and scenes ranging
from the lively charms of peasant life, through bawdy drunken
celebrations, the ebullient singing of soldiers and students,
to demonic delight as Faust is claimed in hell. Finally there
is piety as Marguerite’s soul is saved.
The gorgeous, pearly-voiced
Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sophie Von Otter, was 34 (and looking
much younger) at the time of this recording and in her prime.
She is a warm Marguérite, vulnerable yet sensual and fierily
passionate as she falls under the spell of Faust. Her big arias,
‘The King of Thule’ and ‘Romance’ are delivered with arresting
intensity, her lower register so rich and her top notes secure
and pure. Keith Lewis is splendid too as a Faust full of ennui,
as we meet him. He then falls easy prey to the devil’s machinations,
before becoming increasingly ardent as he pursues his ideal
love, Marguérite. José van Dam has made something of a speciality
of Méphistophélès. He is outstanding here; relishing his darkly
sardonic role, sweetly taunting, tempting Faust, jovial in the
‘Song of the Flea’, then diabolical in his final triumph.
A fine tribute to
Solti’s triumphant 22-year association with the Chicago Symphony.
A glorious performance full of dramatic intensity with the three
soloists at the their peak.