Ozawa Takes on “Damnation de Faust” in Restored Recording
Hector Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust” (1846) was meant to be a cantata, but several houses have tried it as a fully produced opera, despite the elaborate stage effects demanded by the composer-lyricist. It is really a series of scenes drawn from or at least inspired by Goethe’s “Faust, Part 1,” and is in the full Romantic tradition of its time. It got a production at the Metropolitan Opera some years ago that made too much use of computer graphic images and other gimmickry.
Before the DVD format came along, there were several LP and later CD versions of this work. When “Opera on Record 2” appeared in 1983, there were 8 recordings, some less complete than others, and one of the critics wrote that “there is no satisfactory Damnation on disc.”
The 1954 LP version is said to have the best Faust in David Polari, whereas my favorite has been the 1980 set, conducted by Georg Solti with Kenneth Riegel as Faust and Jose Van Dam as Mephisto. Now Pentatone has released a 1974 recording on CD, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. It falls somewhere in the middle of the other sets. Stuart Burrows and Donald McIntyre are not superb as Faust and Mephisto, but my test for any thrilling recording of this work is to play the double chorus of soldiers and students that ends the second part and the ride and scene in hell towards the end. Here, Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra really does its stuff!
Possibly the conductor is not quite as devoted to the quieter moments. However, I find this a very enjoyable recording, but perhaps not a first choice.
The packaging includes good program notes and the two CDs are enclosed in a hard cover book format that has the libretto in French and English. Pretty good for a budget set.
One or two full productions of this work can be seen on You Tube. There is a terrible “concept” production on DVD and a very good concert version on another. The latter, conducted by Solti, is worth the watching.
By the way, my website at franklinbehrens.com has a series of 7 essays about operas and instrumental pieces based on the Faust legend. I hope that my readers who already are familiar with the Gounod “Faust” and perhaps even the Boito “Mefistofeles” will want to try the Berlioz work. I hope they will find it as thrilling as I did when I first heard it many decades ago.