Bryn Terfel is ideal casting as Hector Belioz’s Méphistophélès. The internationally renowned Welsh bass-baritone has an affable and even deferential onstage manner, but always seems to show beneath his cloak the huge power of his talent. In this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert performance of Berlioz’s masterpiece (March 20 and 21), the suave servant of Satan is exactly as the composer described him: all the powers of hell disguised as a gentleman.
The Damnation of Faust, finished in 1854, is a sort of up-sized cantata in four parts for orchestra, choruses, and four vocal soloists. Berlioz himself called it a ‘dramatic legend’. And although it’s based on Goethe’s play, it’s much less a Sturm und Drang tragedy than a transcendent melodrama for the imagination.
Berlioz conjures his scenes like the most inspired orchestral paysagist, from the rolling Hungarian plains of the first part to the impossible vision of gaping hell-chasms and surging celestial spirits in the finale. Under the baton of Andrew Davis, the MSO renders these varied tableaux in startling high definition, suggesting both largeness of spectacle and fineness of surface detail.
Davis approach is measured and controlled, but only to clarify the intense spirit of the work, not to impede it. The high drama of the orchestration as Faust progresses inexorably toward his terrible end is always to the fore.
Tenor Andrew Staples brings a yearning almost melancholy tone as Faust, with a necessary measure of human frailty — of strain and struggle — to contrast Terfel’s monstrous facility. He rises to those top notes, say in his “Air de Faust”, only to fall once more into ennui. This is an essential quality in Berlioz’s Faust. It points to the true heartrending significance of that awful breath which stops the tenor’s high C sharp in his love duet with Marguerite. Faust can never fly so high or so far as the saints.
As Marguerite, Croatian mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupić, wearing a flamenco-style ball gown, flame-red and flecked with gold, is not quite the epitome of innocence tempted. Her voice is full of sorrow and mystery, but with a suggestive warmth of expression that at times verges on flirtatious. Her playful encounter with a beautifully shaped solo viola in the “Chanson gothique ” is an evening highlight.
Terfel has a compelling stage presence, even in a concert performance, with a resonant, apparently effortless and evenly-produced voice capable of opening a way through the densest orchestral sound, as though opening a passage into the underworld. Melbourne-born Shane Lowrencev is a hearty Brander, and there is excellent support from the MSO chorus and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.
“In the name of the Devil, dance!” commands Méphistophélès. This is really Berlioz really speaking to the orchestra. As he never intended his Damnation to be staged as a full opera, Berlioz gambled everything on the enthusiasm of the players. And we find that eagerness and passion, that sense of dancing, in this stirring MSO presentation.
It’s an exhilarating ride, from the depths to the heights. Exhausted by the drama, what else but to take the devil’s part and murmur our agreement with Méphistophélès? C’est bien, c’est bien, jeunes esprits, je suis content de vous.