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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1846)
Marie-Ange Todorovitch (mezzo) – Marguerite; Michael Myers (tenor) – Faust; Alain Vernhes (baritone) – Méphistophélès; René Schirrer (bass) – Brander
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Orchestre National de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. live, 4-5 November 2003, L’Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France.
NAXOS 8.660116-17 [58:22 + 65:23]


Not strictly speaking an opera – Berlioz calls it a Dramatic LegendLa 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 movie.

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.

Jean-Claude Casadesus 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.

The orchestra 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 Hymn.

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.

Alain Vernhes 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.

Marie-Ange Todorovitch 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.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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