Romanticism was in full flower at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when British conductor Simon Rattle led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a verdant performance of Hector Berlioz’s complete four-part “The Damnation of Faust.”
A full complement of musicians (including four harpists) and vocalists — tenor Vinson Cole (as Faust), bass-baritone Gilles Cachemaille (Mephistopheles), Hector Vasquez (Brander) and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (as the innocent Marguerite) — plus the Los Angeles Master Chorale, filled the Chandler’s stage. The effect was impressive and so was the performance.
Rattle thrives on challenges — the bigger the better. And “The Damnation of Faust” proved ideal Rattle material. Aptly described as “an opera for the mind’s eye,” the work unfolds as a vast canvas, possessing some of the most melodic symphonic music ever written as well as a dramatic storyline that’s operatic in scope.
Over the course of the almost three-hour performance, Rattle and his forces delineated, and reveled in, Berlioz’s free-flowing rendering of Goethe’s epic poem.
Rattle stressed symphonic grandeur over operatic character drama. Atmospheric coloration and tonal splendor were the guiding principals. As a result, the “Hungarian March” in Part 1 emerged as a grand interlude of martial splendor; the “Dance of the Sylphs” as a delicate pastoral pastel, accented by the glassine harmonics of the four harps. In contrast, The “Ride to the Abyss” and the pandemonium of Faust’s descent into the inferno were enough to rattle hell’s hinges.
Rattle did, however, allow Berlioz’s creation its fair share of operatic gusto and pathos.
Cole (perhaps not at his best in French) employed the light lyrical qualities of his voice to full advantage. He brought a poetic quality to Faust’s reveries and onsets of ennui. But in the passionate love duet with Marguerite, the tenor couldn’t quite muster the optimum amount of heroic power and grandeur.
At this point in her career, von Stade’s voice has a darkened timbre that tends to draw away some of the innocent nature of Marguerite. At the same time, the singer’s feel for phrasing and lyrical expression remains impressive. Her haunting ballad, “The King of Thule,” and “Romance” in Part IV were impressive.
Cachemaille makes a devilishly fine Mephistopheles. His bass-baritone is a resoundingly flexible instrument, while his feel for the dramatic captures the devil in all his guises — from suave seducer to demonic monster.
The minor role of Brander was sung ably by Vasquez.
The various sections of the orchestra, as well as the large chorus (which sang in a variety of configurations) responded adroitly to Rattle’s dictionary of gestural commands.