The Damnation of Faust

Hector Berlioz, the enfant-most-terrible among French romantic composers, would have approved of the Hollywood Bowl as the proper receptacle for his most ambitious musical creations. The scope of those ambitions was handsomely detailed Tuesday night, when a sizable and extraordinarily adept performing team filled the Bowl with the seething, glistening sounds of the most unruly, most dazzling of all Berlioz' extraordinary compositions. "The Damnation of Faust" is a work like nothing else in the world. The young composer had come under the spell of Goethe's epic poem in the 1820s, but his adoration of its thunderous pages didn't take musical shape until 1846. Not content merely to set Goethe's poetry to music, he devised his own text, sometimes invented his own scenes (e.g., a march for a Hungarian army to be found nowhere in the original poem) and came up with an evening-length fantasia no less startling on its own than the poetry that inspired it. The choruses mutter and scream; the demons sound forth in their own invented language, the will-o'-the-wisps dance to music so soft as to be felt as goose flesh rather than sound.

With:
"The Damnation of Faust." Conductor, Kent Nagano; soloists Markella Hatziano (Marguerite), John Aler (Faust), James Morris (Mephistopheles), Philip Skinner (Brander). Reviewed Aug. 19, 1997.

The wild-eyed composer, adored and reviled in his time, who thought nothing of enlisting four brass bands and 16 timpanists to summon up visions of the Day of Judgment (in his Requiem Mass), would have staged his “Damnation of Faust” at the Bowl with the Demons of Hell zooming down Cahuenga Pass on invisible steeds and the Angelic Chorus riding overhead in one of those helicopters that are the venue’s one constant plague.

Even without such pictorial embellishment however, California-born Kent Nagano, once a protege of Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa and currently an international star on his own, turned Berlioz’s sprawling epic into a vivid experience. John Aler managed the demanding high notes of the title role with fine style, brilliantly seconded by James Morris’ awesome Mephistopheles; mezzo-soprano Markella Hatziano, the Marguerite, produced some ravishing tones, but was troubled from time to time by a tendency to wander off pitch.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, bolstered at times by auxiliary offstage brass choirs, marvelously delivered the subtle elegances and diabolical outbursts of Berlioz’s scoring; the William Hall Master Chorale, nearly 200 strong, sang the French text with remarkable clarity. (In an uncommonly friendly gesture, the Bowl management furnished program-buyers with both French-English librettos and flashlights.)

The most ambitious program offering in this 76th season of music-making at the Bowl, “Faust” attracted a somewhat below-average crowd of 7,492. The work is long, and there are sizable spaces between its well-known moments. Its presence on the Bowl agenda, and the triumph of the performance, speaks to the bravery of the Philharmonic in occasionally reaching beyond the “easy-listening” image of its summertime offerings. This was one of the great nights at the Bowl.

The Damnation of Faust

Hollywood Bowl; 17,953 seats; $75 top

Production: The Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. presents the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with the William Hall Master Chorale, in Hector Berlioz's "dramatic legend in four parts,"

Cast: "The Damnation of Faust." Conductor, Kent Nagano; soloists Markella Hatziano (Marguerite), John Aler (Faust), James Morris (Mephistopheles), Philip Skinner (Brander). Reviewed Aug. 19, 1997.

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