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New York
Carnegie Hall
10/26/2002 -  
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust
Ruxandra Donose (mezzo)
Michael Schade (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal Chorus and Orchestra
Michel Plasson (conductor)

One of the most charming of all of Thackeray’s writings is his reminiscence of visiting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he was the elder statesman of German literature. The young Englishman was enthralled with both the man and his collegial surroundings and surprisingly cognizant of the master’s place in the history of ideas. The aspirant was treated graciously even though he was still an unknown and struggling writer. Another of Thackeray’s generation had the temerity to actually submit a fledgling work to the octogenarian. Hector Berlioz sent the score of his new Eight Scenes from Faust to Weimar in 1829, hoping for some nourishment from the original fountain. Goethe, however, could not read music (a pity considering that he was such a close friend of Beethoven) and asked his longtime associate Carl Friedrich Zelter, the principal teacher of the young Mendelssohn, for his thoughts. Unluckily for Berlioz, the conservative Zelter could not find any merits in these pieces (they included the haunting “King of Thule” song later used in the Damnation) and advised Goethe accordingly. Ever the gentleman, the last great representative of his era sent the budding revolutionary composer a splendid missive but no specific praise for his efforts, in contrast to his treatment of Delacroix, whose work he could understand without the need of interpreters.

In the early part of the 20th century, four major operas were written with no thought to staging or costumes; rather they existed in their composers’ conceptions as opera of the mind, meant to be experienced as partners to the individual listener’s imagination. Significantly, all four deal with the Faustian dilemma. Two, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Pfitzner’s Palestrina, explore the deleterious effect on the creator of the flowering of artistic genius, while the other pairing, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Mahler’s second movement of the Symphony # 8, deal directly with the Goethean legend (and have immense instrumental and harmonic similarities). All four of these works owe their genesis to Berlioz’ original epiphany that to create the proper landscape for this Jungian story, one must not employ the proscenium and floorboards, but rather the dendrites and synapses. In the best Byronic manner, the resulting work is a closet opera and, although some recent attempts at its staging have been in themselves interesting, the ideal mise en scene is definitely internal. Given the current trend, largely driven by economics, of presenting opera in concert version, however, it is important to remember that this oratorio style is not an adaptation, but actually (to be politically correct) the “authentic” period practice.

Last evening’s particular deal with Old Nick was apparently for a microphone. Although a fine balance was created between vocal and instrumental utterances, it was impossible to truly appreciate or evaluate these singers supported so extensively by artificial means. I have heard both John Relyea and Michael Schade before and realize the limitations of their individual volume controls, but reducing them to push buttons on a human CD player was hardly the ideal solution. Ruxandra Donose was a creditable Marguerite, although her amour was a little less ardente of a flamme than others that I have experienced in the past. The OSM sounded clear and crisp throughout, but never achieved that high level of opulence under substitute conductor Plasson, who bravely entered the breach after L’affaire Dutoit. There was nothing wrong with this performance, but ultimately it was rather routine. During the Berlioz year to come, Sir Colin Davis will be presenting this same rare work with the LSO. It will be interesting to see who gives the devil more of his due.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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