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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1846) [113.52]
La Mort de Cléopatre (1829) [20.57] *
Faust – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Méphistophélès – Gabriel Bacquier (baritone)
Marguerite, Cléopatre* – Janet Baker (mezzo)
Brander – Pierre Thau (bass)
Une voix – Maria Peronne (soprano)
Choeurs de L'Opéra de Paris
Orchestre de Paris/Georges Prêtre
London Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Gibson *
rec. October 1969, Salle Wagram, Paris ; September 1969, Watford Town Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS 3814932 [76.55 + 57.50]
Experience Classicsonline

As far as I can tell, this version of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust 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 is especially welcome. Lovers of Berlioz will probably want it for the contribution of the three principals: Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda and Gabriel Bacquier.
Generally 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.
As 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.
Baker 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 she imbues 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 them.
When 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.
Bacquier's 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.
Perhaps 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.
As 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.
There 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.
The disc is completed with Baker's performance of La Mort de Cléopatre recorded about the same time. This used to be included on the discs of her excerpts from Les Troyens 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.
The disc has very brief liner-notes. There’s also a track-by-track synopsis but no libretto.
This is definitely not an ideal recording of La Damnation de Faust. 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.
Robert Hugill

see also review by Christopher Howell



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