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The Road To Hell Is Paved With Great Conducting

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/01/2009 -  & April 29, May 2 (Philadelphia)
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust, op. 24

Magdalena Kozená (Marguerite), Gregory Kunde (Faust), Thomas Quasthoff (Mephistopheles), Eric Owens (Brander)
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Heyes (director), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Simon Rattle (conductor)

Simon Rattle (© Chris Lee)

After the first five minutes of Sir Simon Rattle’s exciting performance of Berlioz’ “dramatic legend”, it became obvious why the Metropolitan Opera’s staged version was so disappointing. Berlioz used music for painting, for scenic design, using music not to accentuate drama but as drama itself. Logic would preclude a composer who wrote about Faust going to Hungary, just because Berlioz wanted to write a Hungarian march. But logic is always trumped by his art. Stage managers and scenic designers may try their best, but they are almost literally gilding the lily.

In other words, Hector Berlioz knew exactly what he was doing. His stamping of wild horses dragging Faust to hell is in all in the orchestra: no shadow puppets of stallions can do the trick. When Faust sings of nature, the lower strings sweep up cascades and gorges, the vision of waves crashing on forlorn sands and thunder in remote forests. Visual artists can only scratch on the surface.

Which brings us to Sir Simon Rattle and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The heritage of Leopold Stokowski is still with the Philadelphia, for their solo instruments gleam with color oboist Richard Woodhams was the impeccable partner in “The King of Thule”, the brass offstage and on gave mighty military tattoos and demonic fanfares.

Equal credit to the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, velvety soft or sarcastic and giving out the most fearful Beelzebubbish imprecations in an apocalyptic finale which embraces hell and heaven. (Frankly, if I am going to hell, it would be a pleasure to have this kind of music serenading me as I go to the fiery depths.)

But it was Sir Simon Rattle who held this together. I have heard more fervent Damnations, more frenetic playing. But Sir Simon realizes that this is, above all, a drama by Goethe which inspired Schumann, Gounod, Busoni and Boito. Thus, his tempos were never weak (save in one aria by Marguerite), but he held the reins tightly. We were never propelled into these scenes through sheer velocity, because Sir Simon must have realized that this work has some of the loveliest tunes in or out of opera, and he wanted us to appreciate them for their sensitivity as well as their dramatic import. That would be obvious in the orchestral sections, but Faust’s own long passages were conducted so we could hear just how lovely they were.

With one excusable exception, the soloists worked into their parts well. into the drama, though this wasn’t immediately apparent. Gregory Kunde initially was fighting his way to those topmost notes. He succeeded, but it was a reach. By the third part, he was as smooth as possible. Thomas Quastoff isn’t a natural French singer, and didn’t quite gain the satanic malevolence needed at the end. But so beautiful is his effortless baritone voice that one could easily overlook this. Frankly, though, I would have preferred Eric Owens, in hiss one tavern scene aria to play the devil. This is a bass-baritone rich in tone, easy, comical, and one could imagine him scaring the daylights out of that ending.

I am certain that Magdalena Kozená would do a good job as Marguerite, but she was recovering from a cold, and her long aria, “Le Roi de Thulé” was a series of notes, sung on pitch. The grace, the line, the feminine mystique was missing. Nor did the later duet with Faust reveal anything but dispassionate lady dealing with an eternally passionate situation.

This was the only flaw, though, for Sir Simon Rattle obviously loves this orchestra as well as the music. And yes, the next ten days at Carnegie Hall will be celebrated by other great orchestra and the complete Mahler symphonies. But neither Berlioz nor Sir Simon Rattle need not stand in any shadows. Their own Damnation was damned gorgeous.

Harry Rolnick



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