Shakespeare and Goethe held a special place in Hector Berlioz’s pantheon as the “silent confidants” of his youthful torments. The arbiters of French culture considered them maverick mixers of genres, precisely what appealed to Berlioz, a composer for whom categories had no relevance. After reading Nerval’s prose translation of Part One of Faust (only the various ballads, hymns, and songs were versified), he immediately composed his Opus 1, Huit scènes de Faust and published the score at his own expense in 1829. He eventually developed  second thoughts about the worth of the composition and withdrew it, trying to destroy as many copies as he could (only about a dozen remain). Faust never strayed far from his thoughts, though. The subject incubated for sixteen years before he returned to it, revising the original eight settings and weaving them into the fabric of an ambitious, hybrid work, La damnation de Faust – part opera (complete with stage directions and two ballets), part cantata, part symphony. Berlioz filtered the spirit of the source material through his own unique musical and dramatic sensibilities, changing the plot and adding his own invention to Goethe’s, the most obvious example being the opening scene on the plains of Hungary with his popular version of the Rákóczi March.

Paul Groves and Charles Dutoit © Hilary Scott
Paul Groves and Charles Dutoit
© Hilary Scott

In tonight’s performance of the work, Charles Dutoit created a sound world of expansive latitude and translucent textures where the march stood as a hallmark for his overall interpretation. With close attention to detail and dynamics, and a deliberate pace which allowed those details space without bogging down, he led a march which actually marched and built subtly into a ferocious juggernaut. The same attention to detail, dynamics, and pace continued throughout, wakening Spring-like stirrings on the banks of the Elbe, kindling a lurid fire for the macabre “Ride to the Abyss” and “Pandemonium,” and wafting Marguerite heavenward on the wisps of silken harps and strings to the beckoning angels of the Choir of St Paul’s, Harvard Square. Cognizant of the major role played by the violas, who anchor the dark sonorities of the score and displace the usually dominant first violins, Dutoit placed them on the outside to his right where the cellos normally sit.

Paul Groves didn’t sound himself. Frequent tugs at his water bottle suggested there was something amiss. At times the voice sounded unfocused and it lacked its usual ping. High notes he might normally take in full voice, he sang in mixed voice. Nevertheless, he was always energetically in the moment, dramatically speaking. The suave, sardonic, roguish, and vocally imposing Méphistophélès of John Relyea, casting a hypnotic spell with a menacing hint of et in Arcadia ego in “Voici des roses” or mocking the lovers with his “moral song” “Devant la maison”, owned the stage. Susan Graham spun a clean legato line and opalescent tone duetting seamlessly with Steven Ansell’s rapt viola for a twilit “Autrefois un roi de Thulé” and shading her voice ever so slightly to echo Robert Sheena’s poignant English horn in “D’amour l’ardente flamme”. David Kravitz divertingly deadpanned Brander’s mordant tale of love and rat poison.

Groves, Susan Graham and John Relyeah front the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus © Hilary Scott
Groves, Susan Graham and John Relyeah front the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus
© Hilary Scott

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus morphed into a troupe of versatile actors, taking on the guise of peasants, Easter worshippers, Auerbach’s crapulous patrons, sylphs and gnomes, soldiers and students, will-o’-the-wisps, Marguerite’s nosy neighbors and a mob of demons and the damned yammering macaronic nonsense. James Burton adopted an unusual seating arrangement: a few women along each side and the men concentrated between them, with the rest of the women at the bottom of the risers. This gave a uniquely robust, masculine cast to the choral singing, much different than what most ears are accustomed to hear either in the concert hall or on disc.

As Faust sought to transcend human limitations, so Berlioz sought to surpass the restrictions of musical genre and practice. In creating La damnation de Faust, Berlioz hit, as Schopenhauer put it when defining genius,“a target no one else could see.”