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Rattle’s Damnation

Verizon Hall
04/29/2009 -  & May 1 (New York), 2 (Philadelphia)
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust
Magdalena Kozená (Marguerite), Gregory Kunde (Faust), Thomas Quasthoff (Méphistophélès), Eric Owens (Brander)
The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Simon Rattle (conductor)

Gregory Kunde (© Foto - ab Inc.)

The Philadelphia Orchestra is capping a season-long Berlioz retrospective with concert performances of La Damnation de Faust. In a blazing account of Berlioz’s four-part dramatic legend, Simon Rattle draws fervent playing and expressive singing from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. The capacity audience in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall rewards Rattle and his musicians with a storm of applause. They deserve the ovation.

Rattle shapes a masterful account of this kaleidoscopic score as it sweeps from the fields of Hungary to a German wine cellar and a garden on the banks of the Elbe River before culminating in a frenzied descent into Hell and a radiant apotheosis in Heaven. Molding the score with an unerring feel for the instrumental colors in Berlioz’s music, the conductor catches the blazing impact of the Rákóczi March but also exploits the refined elegance of the “Chœur des Gnomes et des Sylphes” and the “Menuet des Follets.” Rattle charges the climactic “La course à l’abîme” with unstinting intensity. Throughout the performance, he summons expressive singing from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. The expertly trained chorale catches the irony in the tavern scene’s rollicking fugue but also conveys the transparent beauty of the final celestial chorus. Transfixed by the sublime beauty of Berlioz’s finale, the audience holds its collective breath before breaking into cheers and standing applause.

The soloists prove uneven. Gregory Kunde makes a compelling Faust. The veteran tenor sounds dry-toned in the opening scene but quickly strikes form. He reaches an expressive peak in Faust’s powerful invocation, “Nature immense.” Singing intently and expressively - and without a score - Kunde shapes the music with a blend of power and control. Trapped behind a music stand with score in hand, Magdalena Kozená fails to find the expressive range of Marguerite’s music. Wearing a gorgeous but inappropriate gown with a plunging neckline, the mezzo-soprano gives a bland, undersung account of “Autrefois un roi de Thulé” and then shapes a coolly restrained performance of “D’amour l’ardente flamme.” Kozená suggests neither the emotional heartbreak nor the intense despair in Berlioz’s music. Thomas Quasthoff fails to find the dramatic dimensions of Méphistophélès’ music. His light voice does not project with sufficient power or color in either “The Song of the Flea” or the “Sérénade.” Like the mezzo, he flips through the pages of the score as he sings. Bass Eric Owens squeezes out the notes in Brander’s “Song of the Rat.” Despite the uneven singing of the soloists, the conductor, orchestra and chorus make this Damnation unforgettable.

Robert Baxter



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