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BWW Review: Berlioz's DAMNATION DE FAUST - Erato


BWW Review: Berlioz's DAMNATION DE FAUST - Erato

A gorgeous new recoding of Berlioz's DAMNATION DE FAUST, on the Erato label, has come my way and it is well-worth investigating. The work has entered the public consciousness with the recent revival by the Metropolitan Opera in late January and early February.

This recording, part of Erato's traversal of Berlioz's works, follows hot on the heels of its triumphant recording of LES TROYENS featuring conductor John Nelson, soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Michael Spyres, all three of whom appear on the present recording.

Berlioz's DAMNATION is, of course, an adaptation of the Goethe work, but in its scope, more closely resembles Boito's MEFISTOFELE than Gounod's FAUST. Goethe's FAUST has as its landscape a global setting, hinted at by Boito, but minimized by Gounod, who sticks almost exclusively to the Marguerite episode. Berlioz's work transports us to a Hungarian plain, the Elbe River, a Leipzig tavern, Marguerite's home, the netherworld, and finally to Heaven.

Berlioz realized, after he had composed this "legende dramatique", that it would be difficult to stage and premiered it as a concert. It succeeds so well in that form because it really has more in common with oratorio than opera. There is a tremendous amount of choral music in DAMNATION DE FAUST and that is what really dominates. The chorus portrays soldiers, students, denizens of the underworld, and an angelic choir. The Coro Gulbenkian and Les Petits Chanteurs handle the choral work with tremendous aplomb in the present recording.

Faust and Marguerite are the distinguished tenor Michael Spyres and the ever-amazing Joyce DiDonato. They both serve the piece well with their impeccable French diction and beautiful interpretations of Berlioz's vocal lines. This is not an easy work to master; Faust's tesstitura is punishingly high at times, but Mr. Spyres manages quite well, fearlessly in fact. Ms. DiDonato, who sings less, but establishes Marguerite's vulnerability so well, ravishes the ear with her "D'Amour l'ardente flamme". Nicolas Courjal brings a rich bass to the role of Mephistophele and Alexandre Duhamel is excellent as Brander, the student. The Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, conducted by the world's foremost Berlioz specialist, John Nelson, deserves a great ovation, as well. Berlioz was a superb orchestrator and treated the instrumentalists with the same care as he did singers. There is no dearth of great melodies for orchestra in the score: the Hungarian March, the Dance of the Sylphs, and the Minuet of the Will-o-the Wisps. The orchestral accompaniments to the various arias deserve special mention, as well.

The recording was a compilation of a few concert performances from 2019, but there is certainly no audience noise detectable.

This is a must for Berlioz collectors.

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From This Author George Weinhouse