Publicado en Mundoclasico.com (ISSN 1886-0605) el 21/11/2008

Searching for Faust’s voice

Por Claudio Vellutini
Chicago, 30/10/2008. The Chicago Symphony Hall. Hector Berlioz, La damnation de Faust. Concert performance. Gregory Kunde (Faust), Susanne Mentzer (Marguérite), David Wilson-Johnson (Méphistophélès), Jonathan Lemalu (Brander). Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Duaine Wolfe, chorus master. Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago. Emily Ellsworth, chorus master. Charles Dutoit, conductor.
As in the case of many nineteenth-century French vocal works, one of the main obstacles to a performance of Hector Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust lies on the tenor-role: like his contemporaries, Berlioz conceived the role of Faust for a type of tenor voice that disappeared during the nineteenth-century, and that, consequently, is extremely difficult to recreate nowadays. Such a voice is required to possess at the same time considerable souplesse in the middle register for the most lyrical passages, a soft top register (to be reached mostly with the so-called voix-mixte, and by no means with stentorian strength as has become customary in more recent years), and yet with enough power to face Berlioz’s massive orchestration. During the twentieth century, few important tenors have taken up Berlioz’s challenge: if we skim through the discography of the work (which includes more than twenty versions, counting merely those reissued on cd), it is easy to notice that only Nicolai Gedda performed the role regularly, and recorded it twice.

There may be another reason why many tenors did not want to perform the role: in spite of its vocal complexity and length, Faust has no traditional aria, while both Méphistophélès and Marguerite, the other two main characters of the work, have their show-piece. Marguerite, in fact, is given two, which have become two of the most well-known vocal pieces by Berlioz. This also explains why, despite the lack of big names for the role of Faust, La damnation de Faust has been recorded quite often: few major mezzos would lose the opportunity to record their interpretation of Marguerite. Music lovers are therefore spoiled in that respect, being given a choice between two versions casting Regine Créspin, one in Italian featuring Giulietta Simionato, a live performance with Marylin Horne, and others with Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade, Yvonne Minton, Anne Sophie von Otter, Jennifer Larmore and Susan Graham.

At the Chicago Symphony Hall, Faust recaptured the right to his title role, thanks to one of the very few interpreters around today who can adequately face Berlioz’s vocal writing. Indeed, since his debut in Benvenuto Cellini under John Eliot Gardiner in 2002, tenor Gregory Kunde has performed most of Berlioz’s major works: Les Troyens followed in 2003, La damnation de Faust in 2004, and, more recently, Roméo et Juliette. In his approach to these works, he relies on his thirty-years career as tenore di grazia, and particularly on his expertise in the most demanding belcanto roles (Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Elvino in La sonnambula, Arturo in I puritani, Percy in Anna Bolena). More recently, his voice has expanded in its lower register, so that he could enlarge his repertoire to include such dramatic parts as the title role in Rossini’s Otello or Pirro in Ermione, while maintaining incisive high notes. These very characteristics make Kunde’s singing suite the needs of Berlioz’s Damnation. Despite the lack of charm in the color of his voice, Kunde portrayed a suggestive Faust: as an interpreter, he found appropriate solutions to the different dramatic situations; as a singer, he cleared the many hurdles of his role.

Susanne Mentzer, on the other hand, was quite disappointing as Marguérite: her voice always sounded correct, but she rarely used it to convey emotion. British baritone David Wilson-Johnson accurately outlined Méphistophélès: although he does not possess a strikingly powerful voice, he showed a very solid technique and an insightful phrasing. The result was an intriguing interpretation, in which the sinister connotations of the character were well-balanced with his many grotesque features. Jonathan Lemalu amused the audience with his exuberant performance of Brander’s ballade.

Charles Dutoit conducted the performance with impressive energy and subtle elegance. Under his baton, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra confirmed the outstanding quality of its wind section, though sometimes the strings, expecially in the most transparent passages, seemed to lose control of the quality of the sound. The Chicago Symphony Chorus fulfilled its demanding task with lush sonorities and remarkable cohesion.