Not strictly speaking
an opera – Berlioz calls it a Dramatic Legend – La
Damnation de Faust still has some claims to be Berlioz’s
best music-dramatic work, though it is not easy to stage.
Had the composer lived a century later he might have designed
it as a movie in Technicolor and Widescreen, something that
could easily be done by some brave director. It may have been
done, even though I haven’t come across it, but waiting for
this to happen the best way to enjoy the work is possibly
to listen to it in a good recording and create one’s own mental
Using all his
brave inventiveness and his skill at orchestration, Berlioz
created a marvellously colourful work with catchy orchestral
numbers - the Hungarian March is the best known - and a wealth
of beautiful and dramatic vocal pieces. It requires, besides
a good orchestra and a large chorus with first class voices,
three world-class singing-actors. This is what it gets in
this live recording from Lille.
has recorded a number of excellent discs for Naxos with his
Orchestre National de Lille, among them a couple of further
Berlioz offerings. Even though Berlioz’s tonal language is
many-faceted there is an extra dimension to hearing him performed
by French forces. This is especially the case in this work,
which starts in Hungary, continues in a variety of places
in Northern Germany and ends up in Heaven and was composed
in coaches, steamboats and trains all over Europe.
here is impressive, producing a Hungarian March with
Magyar rhythmic lilt as well as a gossamer-light and transparent
Dance of the Sylphs and an intense Ride to the Abyss.
It may seem a bit odd to fly-in a Slovak Choir, but they are
really excellent and as far as I can judge their French is
wholly idiomatic. This is thanks no doubt to the vocal coach
Nathalie Steinberg. The Peasants’ Dance and the Drinking
Chorus are spot-on and they deliver an atmospheric Easter
In the strenuous
title role Michael Myers is impressive. He is bright-toned
and has a timbre that is not unlike that of Nicolaï Gedda,
whose rendering of the part has always been the touchstone,
whether it be in the Prêtre or the Colin Davis recording.
Myers runs him close in intensity and identification; he is
sensitive and phrases carefully. In the duet with Marguerite
in Part III he sings with overwhelming glow and his Invocation
to Nature in Part IV could hardly be bettered. His voice
is not completely free from strain but this only adds to the
credibility of the rendering.
also impresses greatly as Méphistophélès with his darkish
tone, his powerful attack and his elasticity. He makes his
mark at his very first entrance, Ô pure emotion in
Part II and never lets the tension slacken whenever he is
in charge. Une puce gentile is splendid, his singing
of Voici de roses is a thing of beauty indeed. His
serenade, Devant la maison is a match even for the
most accomplished of his rivals, including José Van Dam in
the Solti recording. Veteran René Schirrer turns in an excellently
executed Brander’s Song, singing with face.
is a well-known quantity in French and international repertoire;
she rarely disappoints. Her mezzo-soprano is on the dark side
and can occasionally adopt a slightly hollow tone, which happens
here in the afore-mentioned duet with Faust in Part III. Elsewhere
she shows herself in the best of lights, including a fine
Autrefois un roi de Thulé and a dreamily beautiful
D’amour l’ardente flame with the cor anglais solo exquisitely
played by Philippe Gérard. That said, I would ideally have
wished it to be a mite less backwardly balanced. Apart from
that the recording is exemplary with the many felicities in
Berlioz’s instrumentation making their mark. The presence
of an audience is hardly noticeable. If there were applause
- which there must have been, considering the quality of the
music-making – it has been skilfully elided.
For the sung texts
one has, as usual nowadays, to go to the web – or so one is
advised. In this case when I tried I only got “Page not found!”
on my screen. Anyway, as I have pointed out before, it is
a quite expensive thing to print these texts. Naxos are doing
us a disservice. I can’t imagine many listeners wanting to
read the texts from the screen while listening.
This grumble apart
the recording must be given a strong recommendation.
see also Review
by Jonathan Woolf