Berlioz's La damnation de Faust at the Philharmonie de Paris



I’m in league with the devil, it seems! Old Beelzebub has stalked me a few times over the past year. I travelled to Nice for a well-staged production of Gounod’s Faust mystically and darkly directed by Nadine Duffaut for Opéra de Nice but, closer to home, I attended a semi-staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Aldeburgh Festival featuring a young and enthusiastic cast recruited from Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists’ Programme.

But, like a good ’un, he kept his fangs deep into me and tracked me down on the East Sussex Downs where I witnessed an excellent and innovative staged production of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne directed by Richard Jones marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

And, now, with the New Year - and fresh new souls to prey on - he’s up to his old tricks again and nabbed me in Paris where, sitting comfortably in my seat in the grand surroundings of the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of the Philharmonie de Paris, I attended a marvellous concert performance of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust under the baton of Russian-born conductor, Tugan Sokhiev.

Overall, I champion the music of Berlioz who, incidentally, was struck on the Faust legend after reading Goethe’s Faust in 1828 in a translation by Gérard de Nerval and, of course, the inspiration for La damnation. I’m equally struck on the legend, too. It has bugged me for years and I well remember my first operatic encounter with the Faustian subject. It came about by attending a good touring production of Gounod’s Faust by the Carl Rosa Opera Company at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1958 - 11th April to be precise. It made a big impression upon me and actually got me hooked on opera.

Often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture, the other being Don Giovanni, the tragic story of Faust became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Countless works were inspired by the myth including the likes of Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Part II of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

Originally, a concert-opera, La damnation de Faust became with expansion a ‘légende dramatique’ (a term coined by Berlioz) in four parts. By the time it was written, the composer had found fame by his masterful trio of works - Symphonie fantastiqueHarold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet.

However, Berlioz always wanted the work to be staged and, in this respect, the première fell to the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in December 1846. The performance, though, was a bit of a damp squib due to its status, perhaps, of being part-opera, part-cantata. Understandably, Berlioz was greatly disappointed but, really, I think he would have joyfully endorsed and relished this latest Parisian concert performance.

Berlioz wrote for large musical forces but none comes larger than those recruited for this concert version of La Damnation. For instance, the Orchestre de Paris numbered well over 100 plus the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris comprised a battalion of 172 singers and on top of this immense musical force there was a children’s choir and young person’s choir. Berlioz en fête!

As for the team of soloists it was the Italian bass-baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Méphistophélès who, in one way or another, ran away with the show. He certainly put in a commanding and assertive performance of this conniving character sporting a red-corduroy pair of trousers denoting the tools of his trade. He hogged the limelight. But, as always, the devil has all the best tunes. And, in this respect, Mr D’Arcangelo delivered good renditions of them especially to that catchy tune, the Song of the Flea, whilst showing the sinister (but suave) side to his devilish character in the scene in Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig where he meets and greets Faust taking him on his long journey to destruction and despair.

The scene in which Méphistophélès actually nails Faust to the mast capturing his poor soul with the vision of Marguerite was brilliantly executed and the French mezzo-soprano singing the part of Marguerite, Karine Deshayes, couldn’t have been bettered. She harbours a wide vocal range while her articulation and presentation was second to none. By all accounts, a big favourite with Parisian audiences, she won plaudits for her performance at her curtain-call that was so justifiable no doubt fuelled by her tender and delicate rendering of the ballad about the king of Thule (La Roi de Thulé), a highlight of the whole work.

Another telling (and catchy) number, the Song of the Rat (Chanson de Brander) lit up the stage, too, sung with gusto by French bass, Renaud Delaigue, in the role of Brander, the landlord. Paying tribute to a dead kitchen rat the song (which has earned the distinction of a place among the top ten operatic drinking songs) ends with the sublimely-twisted closing chorus of ‘Amen’ so graciously sung by the Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris under the direction of Lionel Sow.

Alas, the central character of Faust, sung by American tenor, Paul Groves - taking over the part from Jean‐François Borras - proved slightly disappointing. A difficult role, for sure, Mr Groves - who, by the way, harbours a good pedigree and has sung leading roles with major opera-houses throughout the world ranging from Boston Lyric to Vienna State - suffered badly from intonation problems and his voice didn’t take too kindly to the high writing of Berlioz’ challenging score. But that’s how it was on the night. And that’s how it stands.

However, members of the orchestra found themselves on top form and played triumphantly not just the big set-pieces such as the Hungarian March (Rákóczi March) - an 18th-century melody heard at the beginning of the work - but also the hair-raising Ride to the Abyss (La Course à l’abîme) a wild, reckless galloping ride towards eternal damnation. They delivered sensitive and delicate readings of the work’s more gentler and lyrical passages, too, such as the Dance of the Sylphs (Ballet des sylphs) which was so joyously pleasing to hear under the baton of Maestro Sokhiev - taking charge of a brilliant and memorable performance - in the confines of the welcoming and spacious Philharmonie de Paris harbouring such rich acoustics and, indeed, good sight-lines, too.

Farewell Berlioz on his 150th and welcome Beethoven in his 250th!

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass-baritone), Renaud Delaigue (bass), Katrine Deshayes (soprano), Paul Groves (tenor)
Orchestre de Paris, Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, Chœur d’enfants de l’Orchestre de Paris
Director: Lionel Sow
Conductor: Tugan Sokhiev

Tony Cooper



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