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Ionarts-at-Large: Berlioz' Damnation

La Damnation de Faust should not feel as long as Les Troyens. Now, Stéphane Denève knows more about conducting Berlioz than I know listening to the composer, and therefore I should seek faults on my part first. I’m a troubled Berlioz-listener. In abstract I admire his phenomenal skill in orchestration, or the innovative use of instrumentation. But when I listen to the undisputable master of episodic phantasmorgasm, I often feel like I have ADD. Appropriate for the Will-o-the-Wisp Minuet, granted. But I look with some desperation to a conductor to take me by the ear and pull me from beginning to end, without the mind beginning to wander.

When the Munich Philharmonic performed La Damnation, it had plenty to wander and wonder. Did Berlioz need to be so decorous, so de-clawed, so serene? My ear strained for gunpowder, sulfur, and explosions; in short: cheap excitement. Denève strolled about and smelled all the beautiful flowers on the way. He did that with indubitable skill and very palpable enjoyment, and the orchestra was with him, most of the way. But the way he caressed every bloody detail—in any case easier to appreciate with a score than in concert—he reminded me of Levine in Wagner: “E.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g is marvelous!” and never an end in sight. And the one bit that I would actually have enjoyed taken with some leisure—Mephistopheles’ very catchy serenade (“Maintenant chantons à cette belle”)—was taken so fast and rushed, that the participants were all over the place and slurred it to the point where it was hard to recognize an old favorite.

available at AmazonH.Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust,
K.Nagano / Lyon / J.v.Dam, S.Graham, T.Moser
A dash of vim was added, at last, by Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s Marguerite. Next to José van Dam (no longer the baritone he used to be), Jean-Marie Frémeau (with a voice like an empty oil barrel), and the young-but-tired-sounding Jean-Noël Briend (last minute replacement for Eric Cutler), she brought much needed élan into the geriatric singer’s line-up. By some measure the least innocent character on stage (very easy to believe that the rôles in her repertoire include Venus and Judith), Béatrice Uria-Monzon had a voice easily twice as penetrating as any of her colleagues, and a slight hardness in the upper regions was a small price to pay for the much needed dose of terse excitement. The highlight of the evening (and greatest benefactor of Denève’s insistence on beauty) was Marguerite’s Romance, which is really a love duet for soprano and English horn, with both of them in absolute top form.

For all the chorus members’ families as potential attendees (the fine amateur Munich Philharmonic Chorus and the Tölz Boys’ Choir—which Berlioz wastefully employs only in the last two minutes), the Philharmonic Hall offered surprisingly many empty seats, and the applause was warm, which is to say, hardly enthusiastic. Perhaps mine weren’t the only ears that struggled.