Berlioz always considered his La Damnation de Faust a concert work – a "concert opera" or "dramatic legend" – despite including stage directions in the score. It is sometimes staged, notably a few years ago at the Metropolitan Opera in a technology-driven production by Robert LaPage. But this weekend's performance by the Cleveland Orchestra, guest-conducted by Charles Dutoit after a 30-year absence, with a starry roster of soloists and the top-notch Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Children's Chorus, was so vividly theatrical, that that the imagination carried the listener and erased any need for scenery and costumes. A few well-chosen gestures and glances among the soloists were enough for the audience to be fully aware of the action. An abbreviated English translation of the text was projected as supertitles. A synopsis of the action and an outline of the musical numbers were printed in the program, but not the complete libretto.

Sir Willard White © Intermusica
Sir Willard White
© Intermusica

The Damnation of Faust is a series of loosely-connected scenes from Goethe's novel, set in French in 1845-46, to an idiosyncratic libretto by the composer, assisted by Almire Gandonnière, and incorporating settings of Goethe's text from 1828-29. Berlioz's imagination was in full flower, with vivid melodies and masterful orchestration. There is "ballet" music interspersed throughout that, with the choruses, carry much of the action.

Tenor Paul Groves made his Cleveland Orchestra debut in 2000 in the title role of The Damnation of Faust. Now, 15 years later, he has vast experience in the role, and has moved from being a rather light lyric tenor to taking on heavier roles, including Lohengrin. He sang tirelessly and passionately in the demanding role, which is not particularly sympathetic. Even though his voice is now larger and fuller, he still can command beautiful floated high notes.

Another returning singer from the Cleveland Orchestra 2000 performance of The Damnation of Faust was the Méphistophélès of veteran bass-baritone Sir Willard White. His performance was a homecoming of another sort as well. White made his Cleveland Orchestra debut in 1975 in title role of the orchestra's landmark performances and recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In the intervening 40 years, he has risen to pre-eminence in a large repertoire. At this point in his career, his voice no longer has the robust brilliance it once did. But no matter here; his musicianship and commanding stage presence fully created the wily evil eminence in front of us. In the tavern scene, White's performance of the "Song of the Flea" was masterful; he created his character with his voice a few simple gestures. He even managed to stomp on the flea.

Berlioz created some of his most enchanting music for mezzo-soprano, and The Damnation of Faust is no exception, especially Marguerite's mysteriously quiet "Ballad of the King of Thule." Ruxandra Donose gave an alluring performance, both sensuous and virginal. Here and elswhere in this work, despite calling for a large orchestra, Berlioz often uses his forces sparingly. The ballad is scored for low winds and viola obbligato, played by principal violist Robert Vernon. American baritone Christopher Feigum made the most of the short role of Brander, who leads the carousing in the Leipzig cellar tavern where Méphistophélès first takes Faust to stir him from his boredom and depression.

The chorus plays a prominent role as peasants, students, soldiers, demons and, finally, a chorus of celestial beings. As prepared by their director, Robert Porco, the Cleveland Orchestra was always attuned to Dutoit's directions. Their French diction was excellent. The men's and women's choruses were called upon to sing separately during the work's two hours and ten minutes, played without intermission. A few times during the more raucous moments, the men's chorus seemed a bit underpowered. But even in passages of loud dynamics, the choruses blend was excellent, and there were some radiantly beautiful quiet passages.

The combined forces rose to their very best for this performance. Charles Dutoit is known to be demanding. It paid off here. The audience's extended ovation at the end confirmed that sentiment. This was a memorable performance.