Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart
Soloists: Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano; Marguérite), Andrew Staples (tenor; Faust), Eric Owens (bass; Méphistophélès), James Clayton (baritone; Brander),
Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus, Wellington (Michael Vinten, Chorus Director)
Michael Fowler Centre
Friday, 25 August 2017, 6.30pm
Berlioz was a non-conformist, musically. In an ironic twist, the otherwise excellent programme notes said he ‘flaunted rules and regulations’ whereas in fact he flouted them, falling out with audience and critics in the process. The work that was the entire programme of this NZSO concert demonstrated to the full the composer’s very different music from that composed by his contemporaries and recent predecessors.
The work required a large orchestra; there were numbers of additional players, and a large chorus, consisting of 28 women and 43 men – when have we ever heard a Wellington choir with so many men in it? I was surprised and delighted to see that the orchestra appeared to include an ophicleide, the instrument specified by the composer next to the tuba, not merely a second tuba (the listing in the programme did not give this instrument).
I last heard this work live back in the 1970s, in the marvellous Dunedin Town Hall, with Kiri te Kanawa as Marguerite and Simon Estes (American bass) as Méphistophélès. The other two singers were David Parker as Faust and Maurice Taylor as Brander.
It was innovative and useful to have surtitles projected in the Michael Fowler Centre, as for a conventional opera (which of course this work is not), so that the audience could follow what was being sung. The French we heard sounded impeccable, particularly from Eric Owens.
The first character we met was Faust, sung by British tenor Andrew Staples. He has a very pleasing voice. At first I thought he was not always strong enough against the orchestra, but soon this opinion changed, as he warmed to the task, and adjusted to the venue being full (well, not completely, which was disappointing) after presumably rehearsing with it virtually empty.
Berlioz’s enchanting music constantly painted pictures. Following Faust’s first solo there was pungent woodwind, including no fewer than four bassoons, and numerous rhapsodic utterances from the orchestra as a whole. The chorus’s first entry, as peasants dancing and singing, was clear and immediate. The singing was precise, with full-bodied tone.
Then came the Hungarian March, featuring fine flute playing especially, with other winds in strong support. Rousing military bravado was almost palpable.
Next was a complete contrast, as Faust leaves the countryside and returns to his study, in Part II. The pensive mood is portrayed in the music’s lambent tones. Then an Easter chorus is sung by the choir and there is a great build-up of volume, as the orchestra becomes more agitated and Méphistophélès appears. American Owens has a magnificent voice, full of expression and tonal colour, but perhaps his interpretation of the role of Méphistophélès could have been more dramatic, vocally; there was a certain uninvolved quality about his performance.
He takes Faust to a pub, where the chorus of drinkers becomes raucous, and an amazing story about a rat is told in ironic, fugal music, followed by Méphistophélès’s story about a flea. The male chorus was in fine fettle singing the chorale for the rat. Strong music conveyed the irony of the flea song. James Clayton, in the part of the drunken Brander, used gesture and movement more than the other singers.
Faust and Méphistophélès retreat from the vulgar scene and the latter sings a lullaby, encouraging rest to come to Faust, amid flowers. Here, his large, rich voice was imposing, and expressive of the words. Trombones’ fine playing accompanied him. The mixed chorus was most effective in invoking the beauty of nature. The strings lead a quiet dance, as Faust falls into slumber.
The male chorus, now students, are joined by the soloists in singing that was robust and characterful, with full brass, as the two protagonists enter the town where lives Marguérite, whom Faust has seen in visions as he slept.
As they make their way to her room, yet more varied, imaginative music sounds from the orchestra, with a march consisting of trumpets and timpani (6 of them!), plus echo horns and trumpets off stage. Faust contemplates the air of the countryside, and thinks of Marguérite. Andrew Staples produced some gorgeous high notes; here there was no problem of balance against the orchestra.
At the opening of Part III, dazzling flutes introduce Marguérite, who sings one of the work’s well-known arias, about the king of Thule. This aria drew beautiful vocal expression from Alisa Kolosova; she also used more facial expression than the other two principal soloists. The aria was accompanied by Julia Joyce on viola, a marvellous obbligato played with clarity and broad strokes bringing out the full tone of the instrument. It was a pity that so much coughing, absent in the first half, was apparent during this aria.
On Méphistophélès’s return he is accompanied by fanciful piccolo pirouettes. Bass clarinet, too has quite a large part to play; another manifestation of Berlioz’s imaginative orchestration, evoking the dramatic moods and changes, reflecting the detail of Goethe’s great dramatic poem based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the Devil.
At the moment at which Marguérite and Faust must part, since they are imminently to be discovered together in the bedroom, the full chorus joined in.
Part IV reveals brilliant singing from Alisa Kolosova in the wonderful aria “D’amour l’ardente flamme”. It was exquisite singing, but even more exquisite was the playing of the orchestra’s cor anglais player, Michael Austin, performing the obbligato. I cannot recall hearing cor anglais playing more wonderful and dynamically varied than this. It made the aria exotic and erotic; alternately electrifying and hypnotic.
The soldiers interrupt the mood, but the cor anglais gets a last opportunity to produce the mellifluous, enchanting, expressive melody. Whereas at times Marguérite seemed to lack the power to project sufficiently.
Faust is heard again, invoking the forces of nature. The drama builds, the female chorus rises. Méphistophélès brings his rushing horses, portrayed by a combination of pizzicato and bowed strings; they underpin the screams and unearthly songs. Brass then woodwind add to the horrific scenario of the rush to hell that has full sway in Berlioz’s (and Goethe’s) imagination. Faust staggers as the men’s chorus and Méphistophélès carry forward the ghastly drama with various names of the Devil, and singing in a ‘devilish tongue’. Méphistophélès wanders off and the women join the chorus.
It was a shattering experience to hear the chorus sing the heavenly ‘Praise’, with the two harps and a solo soprano from the chorus, after what preceded it. Their tone was gorgeous in this heavenly ending. The interpretation by the writer of the programme notes was that the horses carry Marguérite to hell as well as Faust, whereas Larry Pruden’s notes to the 1972 performance have her saved by God; hence the heavenly chorus.
This was an outstanding performance . At the end, the applause was loud, long and accompanied by cheers for all the performers. Andrew Staples nobly gave his bouquet to Julia Joyce, who had played the viola obbligato so beautifully. Then, to my delight, Edo de Waart wended his way through the orchestra to present his flowers to Michael Austin.
Descriptions heard from members of the audience afterwards included ‘amazing’, ‘tremendous’, ‘emotional’. In addition to the privilege of hearing a superb band of soloists, a splendid and well-trained chorus this concert demonstrated again what a fine orchestra we have, under its superb conductor, Edo de Waart. Above all, however, it revealed the astonishing innovation, inventiveness impetuosity and imagination of Berlioz.