Kaleidoscope of inventiveness invigorates 'Damnation'
From Gounod to Busoni to Thomas Mann, the Faust legend has captured and catalyzed many an artistic imagination. But has anyone responded to this myth with as much sheer invention and originality as did Berlioz in "The Damnation of Faust"? He labeled his own masterpiece a "dramatic legend" because it just could not be shoehorned into the pre existing categories of opera or oratorio. And so there it resides as a kind of self-enclosed genre, a lone island off the coast of the Romantic repertoire.
James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the work Thursday night in Symphony Hall, joined by a fine slate of soloists, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus stretching across the back of the stage five rows deep, and, for a cameo in the work's final minutes, the PALS Children's Chorus. There were enough people onstage to populate a small Midwestern town, yet for all of the forces demanded, there is an economy and balletic grace to this score, a precision of expression that prevents the music from ever feeling unwieldy. Berlioz himself was not shy about its virtues, declaring flatly in his memoirs, "I look upon this as one of my best works."
There is of course no shortage of deeply felt solo vocal writing, but the heart of this work is the brilliant kaleidoscope that Berlioz forges out of the orchestra. The music is constantly shifting and refracting such that each scene feels exquisitely tailored to the action at hand as Faust journeys from the plains of Hungary to his sulfurous final resting place. The chorus, too, dons a series of ever-shifting masks, becoming now a group of drunken carousers, now a chorus of gnomes and sylphs, now a choir of angels.
Thursday night, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus proved itself up to the task, singing with both strength and tonal flexibility. The orchestra seemed to take a few extra moments to settle into its standard level of transparency and precision, but it just grew stronger and stronger as the night wore on, with many distinguished solo contributions. The sensitive English horn solos that accompany Marguerite's second song were a particular pleasure.
Paul Groves sang Faust with a tenor both ardent and sweet. José van Dam was an elegantly sinister Mephistopheles, Yvonne Naef was a warmly supple, if slightly understated Marguerite, and Andrew Gangestad made a solid debut as Brander.
The BSO will be getting some good mileage from a work with which it has a rich history. After the three local performances, the Berlioz will be played in Carnegie Hall and then return to Tanglewood this summer. The orchestra will also bring the work on its European tour, which begins at the end of August.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.