BSO and Dutoit Bring the Devil to Boston

November 7, 2017 | By Xandie Kuenning

Beginning in the 19th century, the legend of Faust, as written by Goethe, inspired a number of orchestral compositions, including Wagner’s “Faust Overture”, Liszt’s “Faust-Symphony”, and Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.” Today, one of the most well-known is Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust (English: The Damnation of Faust) On Oct. 28, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the piece under the leadership of Charles Dutoit.


In Berlioz’s telling, Faust, an aging scholar, finds himself apathetic towards the joys of life and decides to commit suicide. Just as he chooses not to go through with this decision, however, a mysterious man known as Méphistophélès appears, offering everything imaginable to Faust, including granting him the gift of youth. The two travel throughout Europe, first to a cellar in Leipzig where they carouse with students, and later to the banks of the Elbe, where Faust dreams of a beautiful woman, Marguerite. Méphistophélès arranges a meeting with Marguerite, but Faust is forced to abandon her soon after. He forgets this encounter until Méphistophélès reveals she has been sentenced to death due to the accidental murder of her mother. Faust pleads with Méphistophélès to save her life and the latter agrees, but it costs Faust his soul and he is led to Hell by Méphistophélès, revealed to be a devil, while the innocent Marguerite is welcomed into Heaven.


An equal mix of opera, symphony and oratorio, Berlioz used the term “dramatic legend” to describe the composition. A melodramatic piece, it features a rather lackluster plot that, while it has its witty moments, overly simplifies the tale of Faust, making the story in some ways more a moralistic tale than a poetic drama. Musically, though there are the standard clichés, such as harp strings denoting Heaven, it is overall much more imaginative. His orchestration ranges from the grandiosity of the “Hungarian March,” to the more somber and intimate “Loves Fiery Flames,” to the absolute pandemonium heard during the “Ride to the Abyss.” 


The cast of vocal soloists was strong, though perhaps not as robust as one would have hoped. According to a press release by a BSO spokesperson, tenor Paul Groves, who sang the titular role of Faust, was “suffering a throat condition, which became apparent to him during the first half of the concert.” This led to bass-baritone John Relyea stealing the limelight as the slick, moustache-twirling, Méphistophélès. The epitome of confidence and charm, Relyea portrayed the Devil as someone who knows he is going to win and so has fun along the way. He created interesting dynamics with the other soloists to bring his character to life. This was unfortunately not the case for mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, playing the part of Marguerite, who seemed unable to forge a genuine connection with Groves. Without vocal accompaniment, however, she shone, particularly when supported by the haunting sounds created by violist Steven Ansell in “The King of Thule.” Finally, though a smaller role, baritone David Kravitz was wonderful as the student Brander. 


The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the children’s choir of St. Paul’s were also superb, the latter ideal for creating the angelic voices heard in the last minutes of the composition as Marguerite ascends to Heaven.


Though at times tedious, this was more due to the simplicities of the plot and the few musical clichés than the performance itself. Overall, it was an enjoyable night of devilish fun.