Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust is not easily classified (it was subtitled a légende dramatique by the composer), with a dramatic narrative but almost impossible to convincingly stage as an opera due to its frequent time and location shifts. As such, it inhabits an uneasy space between opera and oratorio and was here presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in the concert guise in which it was originally performed. That première was in 1846 and, considering that, Berlioz’s work is considerably forward-looking and at times downright strange. The composer’s fascination with the tragic play Faust by Goethe led to a work filled with dramatic contrasts and vivid vignettes but on this occasion the performance largely failed to do them justice.

Alisa Kolosova © Todd Rosenberg
Alisa Kolosova
© Todd Rosenberg

Alisa Kolosova was the pick of the vocal soloists. Hers is a large-ish mezzo with rich overtones but also containing an appealing sense of vulnerability for the troubled Marguerite. She brought a lovely legato and sense of feeling to the gorgeous “D'amour, d'ardente flamme” aided by a cor anglais solo equally compelling in its wistfulness. In the duet with Faust, she imbued her lines with passion and with a warm, velvety timbre. Opposite Kolosova, Andrew Staples brought a very appealing, reedy tone to the leading role of Faust. He was at his most affecting in Faust's introspective recitative-like moments – ideal in the gentle “Merci doux crépuscule” for example. His lovely French diction was also an asset throughout. But it soon became clear that his voice is a little small for the requirements of the part, lacking in power in many of the more extroverted moments. In the great aria “Nature immense”, Faust's invocation of nature, he couldn't match the cascades of water or images of the earth that the orchestra was creating – while individually lovely, these cries were little different in mood to his world-weary mutterings in Part One or his wooing of Marguerite in Part Three.

Despite being undoubtedly the biggest star in the lineup, it was American bass-baritone Eric Owens who disappointed the most in the pivotal role of Méphistophélès. Unfortunately, in this performance the role seemed to sit poorly for his voice, with an unpleasant tightness in the upper register. His vibrato has also widened, rendering many of the faster passages (such as in the nimble “Devant la maison”) depressingly cloudy. There was little to make up for the vocal deficiencies in the dramatic department either. Owens brought little hint of danger to his portrayal with menace particularly insufficient in the Ride to the Abyss – “Je suis vainqueur!” was no chilling cry of victory here. Admittedly, the serenade “Voici des roses” was seductive in delivery even if the basic tone quality couldn't match the expression. Additionally, the balance didn’t favour him; neither Staples nor Owens could be heard in sections where they had to ride over the choral sound. Rounding out the cast was the charismatic local baritone James Clayton who, in his short scene as Brander, displayed all that his male colleagues lacked. Convincingly feigning drunkenness as he came on stage, he sang his drinking song about the rat with great panache and rock-solid vocalism. It almost seemed a pit he wasn’t asked to try Méphistophélès on for size.

Most regrettably, the conductor also seemed largely on autopilot, not providing any great variety of mood for the work's various set-pieces. Edo de Waart opted frequently for slow, steady tempi that robbed the music of a lot of its inner vitality. The Hungarian March failed to swagger and the Ballet des Sylphes lacked the ethereal magic it requires. Only in the slower moments did de Waart’s approach pay off; the well-known Amen fugue was filled with pleasing gravitas for example. But it was not enough when even The Ride to the Abyss suffered from a dearth of tension, despite some absolutely stunning orchestral playing. Nor was much relief to be found in the choral singing, an important component of this work. The NZ Opera Chorus sounded under-rehearsed with some ragged entries and particularly strenuous-sounding tenors. It was left to the orchestra to be the true hero of the day, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s players maintaining a high level despite the leaden conducting. Alongside the aforementioned mesmerising cor anglais solo in Marguerite’s aria, also notable were the gossamer-light textures in the Ballet des Sylphes and the spirited bassoons underpinning Brander’s song. Nevertheless, there orchestral felicities were unfortunately unable to make up for the lack of character of much of the performance.