REVIEW: 'Damnation of Faust'

Art Snob Blog

Tedious and declamatory, Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" presents a problem for programmers and listeners alike. It is cut and rearranged, staged as an opera, presented as a grand symphony with chorus and soloist, and most often heard in a few well-known excerpts that rise above the majority of the material. 

Nonetheless, the Anchorage Symphony gave it a good try on Saturday night and, if the audience didn't float to the rafters the fault lies with the composer, not the performers.

This was a concert version with a few gestures from the soloists (including a bit of comic relief with conductor Randall Craig Fleischer involving the contract of whose terms the title consists) and the back of the stage crowded with members of the Alaska Chamber Singers, the Anchorage Concert Chorus and, at the end, the Alaska Children's Choir. There were cuts - none that mattered - and the piece was sung in English, which also didn't matter since the words were often difficult to make out. I think I understood the choirs' Latin better than their English or (I'm glad to say) the made-up language that Berlioz concocted for the chorus of devils.

Of the soloists, Stephen Powell, singing Mephistopheles, had the best diction and a powerful bass that stayed above the orchestra. Marlene Bateman was in particular good voice that night, her pitches in the often tricky intervals true and confident; her rendition of Marguerite's succulent aria "D'mour l'ardente flamme" (or whatever it was in English) was the melodic highlight of the evening

Tenor Mark Thomsen, the Faust, had impressive breath control but was repeatedly swamped by the orchestra, especially in his higher head tones, which weren't always on target. Dr. David Miller had the single short song of Brander.

The orchestral playing came off well in the louder numbers, the Rakoczy March and Devil's chorus and the choirs were likewise powerful and precise; but both spent a purgatorial amount of time generating sound effects rather than making music. Berlioz is among the masters of orchestration who liked to create peculiar and sometimes stunning sounds, but seldom used counterpoint or development as his main compositional tools - which, come to think of it, may be an apt metaphor for Faust's bargain.

Though the gigantic undertaking did not unfold without its periodic pleasures and excitement, I left hoping that the next time so much energy and talent is put on stage it is in the service of something more musical, elevating and, um, soulful.