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Shimmering Detail in this Faust

Verizon Hall
05/27/2011 -  & May 28*, 2011
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust Op. 24
Paul Groves (tenor), Susan Graham (mezzo), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Lucas Harbour (bass-baritone)
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, The American Boychoir, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)

(© Peter Checchia)

Hector Berlioz conceived The Damnation of Faust for soloists, chorus and orchestra, even though it is easy to understand why opera companies want to stage - Mephisto, the ascension, the pastorals, the charge into the abyss- pick anything. In Robert Lepage’s 2008 Met production, an eye-popping 24-cube dioramic set vaulted the story, but relegated the music to second theatrical fiddle. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite engulfed by hi-def. flame, for instance, dazzled, but easy to leave you yearning for a Faust as the composer created it.

On Memorial Day weekend, Conductor Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra played it a capacity crowd in Verizon Hall, needing no hi-def. feeds, as they delivered a sumptuous, vivid Faust. Susan Graham reprising her Met role, with just the fire of the Fab Phils at her back and Dutoit at her side. For Mr. Dutoit, Berlioz was another chance to show that Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings are as muscled as ever, resplendent in steel and silk striations kept this a forward moving narrative. Tenor Paul Groves rolls out his characterization of Faust with passion and fluid control. He connected to the music and Faust’s dramatic arc, big and small, all the way through. It was a welcome contrast to his bloodless performance with this orchestra in April, in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

As Mephistopheles, baritone David Wilson-Johnson took a while to communicate menace, but got there, subtly and with comedic presence. He really showed his vocal prowess in his duets with Groves. Lucas Harbour, in The Brander Song, singing about rats, sinking earnestly to the depths with his bass.

Mr. Harbour leaves the stage as Ms. Graham enters, in a gorgeous chartreuse Athena gown to match an equally flowing delicacy in her opening song, seemed imbued with haunted beauty, pensive as her rich tone and powerhouse mezzo bloomed. And, like the other soloists, conjured immediate chemistry with Mr. Groves in their dialogue cycles.

Mr. Dutoit and chorus director David Hayes, built this with all components equalized, sustained detailing, with only one or two noticeable sags. Without intermission, the four movement structure got the best of the audience as it passed the two hour mark, there was collective rustling copies of the libretto. But, for most of it, the crowd was silent, even in the pauses, captivated by the orchestral thrust from the players. Among the many standouts- Daniel Matsukawa’s bassoon icily snaked around a Mephistopheles’ song; Nitzan Haroz, principal trumpet and Carol Jantsch, principal tuba, were marvels in the heralds. This horn section has been erratic over the past year, but on this night, not only note perfect, but a unified battalion.

The climatic gallop to the abyss, just thundered on with clarion power, matched in the finale by the Philadelphia Singers Chorale essaying the cryptic language of Pandemonium and in the denouement, The American Boychoir filing in dramatically for Marguerite’s ascension, just bathing this hall with grandeur.

Local audiences have been wondering what is going to happen to their historic Fab Phils, now that its administrative board has filed bankruptcy papers. It has also been disclosed that they could lose a $50 million gift left by the late Leonore Annenberg in 2003 that requires that they stay solvent. None of that seemed to be on anyone’s mind as the audience lustily showed their approval for this tale of battling for souls.

The Philadelphia Orchestra
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale
The American Boychoir

Lewis Whittington



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