far as I can tell, this version of Berlioz's La Damnation
has not been available for a while. For this
reason the reissue of the recording in tandem with Janet
Baker's version of La Mort de Cléopatre
welcome. Lovers of Berlioz will probably want it for the
contribution of the three principals: Janet Baker, Nicolai
Gedda and Gabriel Bacquier.
I prefer my French 19th
century vocal works
sung by native French speakers, but there are a few singers
for whom you can make exceptions: Baker and Gedda are two
of those. Both have an ease in the French language which
is enviable and their style of singing chimes in with the
French vocalisation. Too many more modern recordings have
singers who seem to think it is acceptable to graft French
words onto a basically Italianate technique. Interestingly, La
Damnation de Faust
is a work which seems to have attracted
French singers … or at least, persuaded recording companies
to record them. The recent Naxos version with Lille forces
under Casadesus, includes Marie-Ange Todorovich and Alain
Vernhes. BBC Legends issued a classic concert performance
conducted by Monteux with Régine Crespin, André Turp and
Michel Roux. Neither of these versions is ideal but everyone
should hear Crespin's Marguerite at least once - for me
she is perfect in the role.
Faust, Gedda has the ideal blend of power, a fine sense
of line and dramatic focus. The tessitura of the part seems
to hold no fears for him and he is ideally ardent in the
scenes with Baker's Marguerite. His is an interpretation
that I would not want to be without. My only quibble, and
it is a relatively small one, is that Gedda's Faust is
too likeable. Gedda's open-hearted technique and personality
come through rather.
was at her prime when she recorded this. The top end of
her voice is ideally flexible and free. In the duet with
Faust and in D'amour l'ardente flamme
the words with passion whilst never compromising a sense
of line and focus. The results are inimitable Baker and
profoundly moving. It is fascinating to compare the performance
by Crespin. She seems to be more aware of the earlier influences
on Berlioz. Her vocalisation has a neo-classical cleanness
to it but again one imbued with passion. Two different
interpretations, but I would be hard put to choose between
it comes to Marguerite's first number, I am not quite so
sure. Baker does intensity and passion to perfection, but
I don't think she quite catches the naïve simplicity needed
for this number.
Méphistophélès starts off shouting rather too much, as
if the role lay awkwardly for him. But he goes on to develop
and there are some lovely numbers. Too lovely in fact.
There are times when his Méphistophélès is too suave, too
likeable. From the very first, Méphistophélès should hint
at venom and danger and with Bacquier this does not happen.
In the Ride to Hell and the Pandemonium he is more than
adequate, but by then it is too late for the drama.
Bacquier could have been more helped by Prêtre's interpretation.
Prêtre creates each of the set pieces in an admirable way,
but we do not always get the feeling that they are completely
part of the drama. One of the interesting ways in which
Berlioz freed his genius was to write dramatic works such
as this and Roméo et Juliette
which eschewed the
stage. This liberated him to express the drama of the piece
in the orchestra, away from the singers, where necessary.
In a way he is a bit like Handel, whose dramatic genius
underwent a second, late flowering when he started writing
oratorios, dramatic works for concert performance. In that
context he did not have to take account of what was or
was not viable on the stage.
a result of this, it is important that the conductor integrates
the set pieces into a coherent whole. I'm not at all sure
that Prêtre does this. This is particularly true of the
scenes after Méphistophélès’ appearance. Sections of the
second and third parts can be rather diffuse with their
various ballets and so on. Unfortunately Prêtre is content
to enjoy each felicity as it comes along without truly
integrating them into a whole.
is some lack of co-ordination between the chorus and orchestra,
and on occasions within the orchestra itself. This is not
disastrous, but on first hearing I rather assumed that
this was a live recording, which it is not. The chorus
throw themselves into the drama, but they do sound a little
elderly. This is particularly true of the scenes at the
end of Part 2 when they are supposed to be gnomes and sylphs.
It is also shown up by the strenuousness of the tenors'
attack on the vocal lines in other places.
disc is completed with Baker's performance of La Mort
recorded about the same time. This used
to be included on the discs of her excerpts from Les
but the performance is so superb that I am
not going to complain. Like Marguerite, Cleopatra benefits
from being recorded when Baker's voice was in its prime.
I do not think anyone has ever bettered her account, with
its combination of nobility, deep feeling and profound
resolution. These are all qualities which Baker was able
to articulate brilliantly. By the end I was very moved
but also depressed that no-one had found a way to record
her complete Didon.
disc has very brief liner-notes. There’s also a track-by-track
synopsis but no libretto.
is definitely not an ideal recording of La Damnation
But I think that given its cast and fine
performances, most lovers of the work will want to acquire
it. EMI have made the disc doubly tempting by including
Baker's wonderful Cléopatre
see also review by Christopher Howell