Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Seattle Times
June 22 2012
A review of Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s staging of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust,” conducted by Ludovic Morlot, on June 21, 2012. The concert was notable not only for the vocal soloists, but also because it was stopped for several minutes after an alarm went off.
Mephistopheles is the master manipulator in Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust,” as it came from the Benaroya stage in Thursday’s concert, but a devilish distraction arose in the audience as well. A birdlike burbling was heard during a poignant moment in the concert, seemingly part of the performance — until it became apparent it was not. Maestro Ludovic Morlot stopped the concert for several minutes while the personal safety alarm was located and turned off.
The distraction did no harm to the Seattle Symphony’s performance of this colorful work, a dramatic legend that is not quite opera, not quite oratorio: it’s the story of world-weary Faust, who is deterred by Mephistopheles from thoughts of suicide and who then falls in love with the beautiful Marguerite. There seems a skip in the story here, as the next section shows Faust again miserable having abandoned her, but enticed again by Mephistopheles with a tale of Marguerite imprisoned and about to be hanged. Hot to rescue her, Faust signs a pact with the devil, who instead leads him to hell on horseback; Marguerite goes to heaven.
Morlot, the Orchestra and Chorale, the Northwest Boychoir and Men of Vocalpoint! Seattle were joined by British baritone David Wilson-Johnson as Mephistopheles, played in a splendidly Machiavellian style; Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose looking and sounding the perfect Marguerite; baritone Charles Robert Stephens excellent in the cameo role of Brander; and tenor Richard Leech as Faust, replacing Eric Cutler with just 10 days notice.
Leech seemed least at home in the music — his face buried in the score, singing with little expression and with ubiquitous vibrato that often obscured the note, and at top volume most of the time. Donose and Wilson-Johnson, veterans of this work, gave more life and character to their roles.
A master of atmospheric orchestration, Berlioz creates many memorable moments here, notably galloping horses in the strings and the rising pandemonium on the way to hell, initiated by a shriek from the chorus. Chorusmaster Joseph Crnko had trained the chorale and boys admirably, as the sound was open and clear.
Principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi played an expressive solo accompanying Marguerite’s exquisite first song, and principal English hornist Stefan Farkas did likewise in her equally lovely second. New concertmaster Alexander Velinzon took his seat for the first time, welcomed by orchestra and audience, and Morlot built the whole into a rich and exciting performance.