Faust’s journey to hell, in orchestral Technicolor

By Jeremy Eichler
The Boston Globe
Monday July 30, 2012

There are plenty of evenings, sometimes entire weekends, when the sheer scale of the Tanglewood operation stares you in the face, when the orchestra shuffles dutifully on and off the stage, when the festival has a hard time disguising the fact that it is, among many other things, an enormous summer performance factory, churning out concerts one after another.

And then there are those happy occasions when an ambitious performance seems to snap the place to attention, and 3,000 people sit for hours into the Berkshires night, hanging on every last woody curve of an English horn solo, or reveling in the rich flood of sound produced by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at the music’s high tide.

It was that rare kind of night on Saturday, as Charles Dutoit returned to the podium to lead a rousing and stylish performance of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” The conductor’s last visit to Tanglewood included another adventure in Berlioz monumentality — the composer’s Requiem — though that concert was far less fully realized. This time, all of the pieces seemed to click.

It couldn’t hurt that “The Damnation of Faust” must still be circulating somewhere in the orchestra’s recent memory after all the performances led by James Levine, who made it a keystone work at home and abroad, bringing it on the one international tour he led, to Europe, presumably as a showcase of both the BSO’s Berlioz tradition and its newly resurfaced virtuosity. (For anyone curious about that tradition, incidentally, the BSO will stream free from its website on Wednesday a Charles Munch-led Tanglewood performance of “The Damnation of Faust” from 1960.)

Berlioz’s “dramatic legend,” as the composer called it, delivers the Faust myth through a kind of hybrid musical genre somewhere between the worlds of symphony and opera. It’s no wonder that stage directors can’t resist this score, and not long ago the work received the full Robert Lepage treatment at the Metropolitan Opera. But it’s also hard to imagine any feats of wizardly stagecraft ultimately topping the vividness of the pictures Berlioz creates through his kaleidoscopically brilliant orchestration alone.

For his part, Dutoit brings to this repertoire formidable expertise in realizing those very pictures, and while this performance took some time to settle in, it eventually found that sweet spot between refinement of detail and sheer dramatic sweep. The score’s delicate moments sparkled, with, for instance, diaphanously lovely woodwind playing in the Minuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps and a silken delicacy of string work in the Ballet of the Sylphs. The brasses also turned in a strong night, forcefully delivering the score’s earthier moments, the drunken antics in the cellar scene, and the darkly phantasmagorical horrors that accompany Faust’s unforgettable ride to hell.

The tenor Paul Groves sang ably and ardently as Faust, and even though a forced quality at times marred his upper range, he nonetheless conveyed this character’s deep sense of yearning, one that ultimately renders him vulnerable to the appeals of Mephistopheles. Especially this Mephistopheles, as Willard White was a regal and commandingly elegant devil, vocally suave, dramatically cunning. The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang radiantly in a nuanced performance as Marguerite, her delivery, as usual in this repertoire, so attentive to the musicality of the French language itself. And Christopher Feigum sang characterfully in the smaller role of Brander.

The protean Tanglewood Festival Chorus chose a good night to outdo itself, giving not one zesty performance but several: as drunken revelers, soldiers, and damned souls bellowing out in Berlioz’s invented tongue. The PALS Children’s Chorus also sang beautifully in the final minutes, as Marguerite ascends to heaven. The ovation was instantaneous.

Friday night brought the Tanglewood debut of the orchestra’s assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger. With all of the last-minute cancellations, the BSO has not exactly been a stress-free place to be an assistant in recent years, and Lehninger, like all of the others, had his own trial by fire in March 2011, when he replaced Levine on short notice to lead the world premiere of a thorny violin concerto by Harrison Birtwistle.

He showed poise on that occasion but it was nice to hear this talented young Brazilian conductor in a program prepared under more typical circumstances. His podium work in Friday evening’s closing account of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” showed a promising blend of qualities — clarity of technique, generosity of expression, and lucidity of musically thinking — and the orchestra responded vigorously. The presence of the celebrated pianist Nelson Freire, a fellow Brazilian, on the first half of the program also brought considerable pleasure. Freire’s touch in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 was as poetic and eloquent as ever. And what a good idea to deepen the night’s organic Brazilian connection by way of a rarely heard Villa-Lobos work: “Momoprecoce,” a lively, sun-splashed fantasia for piano and orchestra, in its first BSO performance.

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