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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La damnation de Faust (1845-46)
Faust – Mathias Vidal (tenor); Marguerite – Anna Caterina Antonacci (mezzo-soprano); Méphistophélès – Nicolas Courjal (baritone); Brander – Thibault de Damas d’Anlezy (bass);
Chœur Marguerite Louise
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 6 November, 2018, L’Opéra du Château de Versailles
French text and English subtitles
Picture Format: DVD9 PAL 16:9
Sound Format Dolby Digital 2.0/5.1

2019 is the year in which we mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz. For me, though, in terms of recordings it’s also turning into the Year of Roth. I’ve already greatly admired two terrific Mahler recordings by François-Xavier Roth: the Third Symphony (review) and the symphonic poem ‘Titan’, the forerunner of the First Symphony (review). As if that were not enough, Roth gave us a marvellous Berlioz coupling at the beginning of the year in which he combined Harold en Italie and Les Nuits d’été (review). Now, however, I fancy that Roth may have trumped all those achievements with this DVD version of La damnation de Faust.

This great and exciting work has been much on my mind recently because I’ve had the opportunity to review two audio versions in the last few months: a live recording, dating from 2017. conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (review) and an historic account under the baton of Igor Markevitch (review). Both of those recordings have given me great pleasure and, in their different ways, they have reminded me what a work of genius this is. It’s as dramatic as the Berlioz operas, though on a much more compressed scale that either Benvenuto Cellini or Les Troyens. There have been a number of attempts to stage La damnation. I’ve never seen such a version but reports I’ve read have left me with the impression that, dramatic though the score undoubtedly is, it doesn’t translate easily to the stage. Perhaps it’s preferable to let the drama play out in your head, but if that’s to happen, you need a performance in which the artists portray the music vividly without recourse to stagecraft.

The present performance benefits from a largely Francophone cast. The Italian mezzo, Anna Caterina Antonacci is the only non-French soloist and she’s clearly very comfortable with the language. A French choir is also used and looking at the names of the choir members I would judge that most, if not all of them, are French. So, here we have a performance in which the language slips naturally off the performers’ tongues and it makes a huge difference.

As I said, Anna Caterina Antonacci is Italian. She’s the only one of the soloists whom I can recall hearing before: she sang Il Tramonto on a Respighi disc conducted by John Neschling which I reviewed last year, when I described her singing as “simply ravishing”. She makes another fine impression here. She has a score on a stand in front of her but so far as I could tell she doesn’t refer to it at all, save for when she’s singing with others - during the duet with Faust towards the end of Part III and the subsequent trio that also involves Méphistophélès. Whether using a copy or not, she consistently sings from the heart. ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ is sung with fine intensity, the tone rich and full. Earlier, ‘Autrefois, un roi de Thulé’ is done really well; Ms Antonacci displays a wide range of vocal colouring and her delivery is very expressive. It should also be said that the orchestra’s principal violist, Sébastien Lévy makes a wonderfully plaintive contribution to this aria. In the big duet with Faust, Antonacci plays a full part in an ardent rendition of the music.

I can imagine that some may regard Mathias Vidal as slightly more controversial in the part of Faust. I like him but his voice isn’t as full as, say, Nicolai Gedda who sang on Sir Colin Davis’s 1973 Philips recording or Richard Verreau, who sings for Igor Markevitch. Vidal’s voice is plangent and very French. Generally speaking, he has the strength of resources for the bigger moments – he’s suitably dramatic and intense in ‘Nature immense’, for example – though he did seem to me to be stretched by one high-lying passage early on in the duet with Marguerite. His soft singing is excellent and I enjoyed his sappy, pliant tone in ‘Merci, doux crépuscule!’ At the start of the work he very successfully suggests Faust’s restlessness. My one concern – and, of course, this wouldn’t be an issue on an audio recording – is that he seems to have his eyes on his copy far too often, and certainly much more frequently than his fellow soloists. Nonetheless, he’s a very credible Faust and I enjoyed a great deal about his assumption of the role.

However, beyond a doubt Nicolas Courjal steals the show as Méphistophélès. He commands the stage and offers a compelling, multi-faceted interpretation of the role. At his very first entry, ‘Ô pure émotion!’ is just how I want to hear it, the voice sardonic, sarcastic and insinuating. Furthermore, Courjal echoes in his facial expression what we’re hearing in his voice. This proves to be typical of his performance. Whenever he’s involved you just know he’s the master of the situation and a real duplicitous schemer. Poor suggestible Faust has no chance as Méphistophélès gradually reels him in. ‘Voici des roses’ is marvellous. Roth and his orchestra set the scene marvellously, the soft, woody clarinet of Christian Laborie a delight. Then Courjal’s singing is ideal, the tone suave, gorgeous and even, the words caressed. When the choir joins in they and the orchestra are so sensitive and under Roth’s guiding hand Faust is gently lulled to sleep. The delicate ‘Ballet des Sylphes’ that follows is played with utmost refinement; this nuanced playing is just fabulous. Reverting to Nicolas Courjal, we see a different side of his character in a commanding delivery of the ‘Évocation’ and then his true colours are finally displayed in the moments leading up to the Ride to the Abyss and all that follows. Méphistophélès’ moment of triumph is ideally portrayed by the sneering Courjal. Throughout the performance, not only does he look the part but also he’s right in character, using facial expressions, hand gestures and, above all, his voice to deliver an operatic performance. Courjal gives the most complete performance of the role of Méphistophélès that I’ve experienced. Bravo!

The Chœur Marguerite Louise makes a fine showing. I don’t know for sure but I guess that they’re all professional singers. There are probably about 50 singers involved but there’s no want of weight when required. However, the choir’s main strength lies in the fact that this is such a flexible ensemble. You can tell that immediately in the ‘Ronde de Paysans’. Wisely, Roth takes this at a reasonably steady pace but his choir articulates the music so lightly and clearly that the music comes over, as it should, as celebratory. Later on, the men are marvellous as the competing choruses of Soldiers and Students – the soldiers sing with fine swagger while the students are suitably lusty. I’ve alluded already to the delicacy when the chorus sings as the Chœur de Gnomes et de Sylphes. At the end, the men make a diabolically strong showing in the Pandemonium, after which the ladies (with some help from the tenors) welcome Marguerite into Heaven with chaste, pure singing.

Berlioz’s richly varied and inventive scoring is meat and drink to the musicians of Les Siècles. The playing of the entire orchestra is superb throughout and though it may be invidious to do so, I have to single out the dexterous and characterful woodwind section for special praise. At the big moments, such as Faust’s fall into the abyss, the orchestra packs a punch but does so in proper scale. Above all, though, the finesse and sensitivity which the players bring to the delicate passages in which this score abounds gave me consistent pleasure.

Over it all presides François-Xavier Roth who conducts perceptively and with dramatic flair. It was evident from his recording of Harold en Italie that he has a real empathy for Berlioz’s music and here he proves that in spades. I think he paces the music flawlessly and he also knits together what can be, in lesser hands, an episodic work, presenting it as an urgent, seamless drama.

The visual aspect of the production is excellent. The camera work is always to the point and there’s no gimmickry whatsoever. The sound is very good, though I must express a slight reservation. If you have your TV set hooked up to your hi-fi, I’m sure you’ll get excellent results. I don’t, though I do have a Cambridge Audio sound bar to enhance the sound. However, there were two or three occasions when the camera showed me that the timpani were playing very softly but I couldn’t hear them. When I played the audio track on my hi-fi, through my universal player, the splendour of the sound was properly revealed. It’s a shame that this superb release could not have been made available as an audio disc as well. I would urge Château de Versailles to consider a complementary audio release. The performance is of sufficient stature that it warrants being available for as many people to enjoy to maximum effect in audio or visual format. The only other criticism I have is that the work is divided up into just seven chapters. That’s not a lot for a piece that lasts for just over two hours.

The deeper I go into La damnation de Faust the more convinced I become that it is one of Berlioz’s greatest works. Here we have it in a performance that is worthy of Berlioz’s genius in every way. I believe it’s a mandatory purchase for all devotees of the French master. Vraiment magnifique!

John Quinn

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