“Damnation de Faust” has never enjoyed a very good press over
the years and I’m not surprised. I get the idea he’d have been
happier conducting Gounod’s “Faust”. He veers between a sort
of generalized expressivity and a sort of generalized heartiness.
All Berlioz’s dazzling orchestral effects are swept under the
carpet. The Will-o’-the-Wisps seem to have strayed in from a
folksy Smetana opera while the “Amen” chorus has not a trace
of drunken ribaldry. It is taken at face value, the sort of
thing Sir John Stainer or some other Anglican worthy might have
written at that point. The orchestral playing is often imprecise
and the ragged consonants with which the choir too often closes
its phrases suggests it was a bad day for all concerned. With
Munch and Markevich before him, Sir Colin Davis and several
others after him, Prêtre’s “Damnation de Faust” sounds like
a record that didn’t need to be made.
does have some of the finest singers of the day, though. Nicolai
Gedda and Gabriel Bacquier both turn in excellent professional
performances. Perhaps they would have produced extra frisson
if stretched by the conductor. Dame Janet Baker was evidently
determined to stretch herself no matter what the others did.
I was prepared to find her too “regal”, even matronly, for Marguerite,
but I needn’t have worried. Having recently made the transition
from contralto to mezzo-soprano she was now displaying her upper
register in all its early refulgence. Through skilful use of
portamento she is able to suggest vulnerability and morbidezza
and to suggest a French colouring one would hardly imagine from
her dark-hewn “Sea Pictures” of only a few years earlier. By
commanding attention in everything she does she shows what’s
missing in the rest of the performance. Admirers will want to
hear this. But they are warned that the scenes in which Dame
Janet takes part amount to 26 minutes, so you’ll be paying good
money for an hour and a half that isn’t worth listening to.
Fans of Gedda and Bacquier may think I am being too hard, but
can they really claim that the best of these singers is here?
question of what conductor, of those available to EMI, might
have been more profitably engaged in Prêtre’s place finds at
least one answer in the final track. In 1969 the Scottish Opera
production of “Les Troyens” had proved a landmark in the careers
of Scottish Opera, Sir Alexander Gibson, Dame Janet Baker and
the opera itself. It was rapidly followed by the Covent Garden
production under Sir Colin Davis, and that is the one that got
recorded. Whatever the respective claims of Gibson and Davis,
many expressed their disappointment that the Dido of the first
complete “Troyens” on disc was consequently Josephine Veasey
and not Dame Janet Baker. The latter did at least record, with
Gibson and the LSO, a few scenes from the opera, coupled with
“La Mort de Cléopâtre”, included here.
can hear at once that this is a conductor attuned to the flamboyance,
the visionary quality and – in the long-drawn melodies – the
sheer strangeness of Berlioz’s world. Note the weird brass chords
at the beginning of the funeral march about half-way through.
They typify the sort of writing that gets its proper colour
under Gibson but not under Prêtre. So Dame Janet has the right
setting for her quite extraordinary performance. Her range of
tone and timbre is incredible, establishing her as a great singing
actress, not merely a singer. And all put at the service of
the music as she embraces a whole gamut of emotions.
47 minutes of the package are a must-have …
is needed, then, is for EMI to forget about the Prêtre “Faust”
as such, and to stop expecting people to buy a “twofer” of which
only two tracks of CD 1 are of real value, and reissue the original
Baker/Gibson disc in its entirety. It could then be filled up
with as many of the scenes from “Faust” containing Dame Janet
Baker as will go – quite probably all of them since the original
LP was unlikely to have exceeded 54 minutes. Now THAT would
be a disc in a million …