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Drama of Extremes: Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust

A drama of extremes: the Berlin Philharmoniker performs Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust 

Hector Berlioz La Damnation de Faust

Berlin Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Charles Castronovo tenor (Faust)
Joyce DiDanato mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Ludovic Tézier bass (Méphistophélès)
Florian Boesch bass (Brander)
Simon Halsey chorus director


Not quite an opera and not quite a pure concert work, Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust is difficult to categorise. Whilst various directors have succeeded at turning it into an opera, adapting a work whose effect rests heavily upon the imagination no easy task. Yet concert performances of La Damnation de Faust also present a unique challenge: capturing the drama of Goethe’s play without all the action, props, costumes and scenery of theatre.

But with their concert performance at the Berlin Philharmonie on Friday night, the Berlin Philharmoniker and conductor Sir Simon Rattle were eager to wring as much drama as possible from Berlioz’s highly theatrical score. The orchestra’s vivacious playing was more than adequate replacement for the scenery they lacked. From the outset the orchestra quivered with energy, bringing alive the nature scene that Faust describes at the work’s opening. Most thrilling were its terrifically loud tutti sections (when all the orchestra played together), made more spectacular by the orchestra’s ability to switch instantly between dynamic extremes. For the Rákóczi March, Rattle cheekily brought the orchestra back to quiet, making the final climax all the more ferocious. Coupled with the male voices of the Rundfundchor Berlin, the sheer volume of the Berlin Philharmoniker for Faust’s final descent to hell was utterly overwhelming. Like Faust’s fate, the music was inescapable.

The Berlin Philharmoniker was equally sensitive to the drama when accompanying. It not only supported tenor Charles Castronovo as Faust, but also acted as an extension of his emotions. Castronovo suited the role of Faust. He could effortlessly produce a gorgeously rich sound whilst capturing the pained suffering of his protagonist. Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDanato’s full-bodied sound might be at odds with the youthfulness of Faust’s innocent lover Marguerite. But DiDanato’s undeniably powerful voice soared effortlessly through the hall, even during quiet points. It would be foolish to trade the richness and many expressions that DiDanato is capable of for something weedier and more girlish. Baritone Ludovic Tézier’s Méphistophélès was less convincing, however. Though his singing cannot be faulted, his devil was one-dimensionally wicked, failing to portray Méphistophélès’s alluring charm.

The chorus also play a major role in La Damnation de Faust, variously representing drunkards, soldiers, students and creatures from heaven and hell. But initially slipping into character did not come so naturally to the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Their first entrance as country revellers was not completely bursting with joy, even dragging a little. Nevertheless, their warm sound had no difficulty in portraying Faust’s dream of Marguerite, or the creatures of heaven. In contrast, the men of the chorus showed they could be brash too. Alongside bass Florian Boesch as Brander (with pint glass in hand), they threw themselves into the jollity and humour of their boozy drinking song.

Berlioz’s Le Damnation de Faust is a huge work, and it would be easy for performance to lose their way. Rattle never forced his overall vision onto his players, but coaxed if from them. Under Rattle’s steady hand, choir, orchestra and players came together for an entirely comprehendible but utterly thrilling performance of Berlioz’s momentously dramatic work.

I am an arts and culture writer currently based in Berlin. As well as writing for Berlin Logs, I have contributed to The Economist, Fanfare Magazine, and Seen and Heard. Follow me on Twitter: @hazel_rowland. Or visit my blog.

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