Hector Berlioz (1803 -- 1869) composed his "legende dramatique" (usually performed as a concert opera) "La Damnation de Faust" in 1846, incorporating substantial material he had composed much earlier. Berlioz' "Damnation of Faust" is based upon Goethe's "Faust" with the composer writing his own liberetto in French. Berlioz' work is a sweepingly romantic composition in four parts for three major soloists and large orchestra and chorus. Berlioz music tells the story of an aging scholar, Faust, tired and bored with life who wants to restore his youth and enthusiasm. He is tempted by Mephistopheles and sells his soul to save the beautiful woman, Marguerite, that Mephistopheles has found for him. The theme and the music are prototypical romantic and flamboyant Berlioz. But in addition to its deep romanticism, Berlioz' opera was heavily influenced by Gluck, Berlioz' great model, and the eighteenth century reformer of opera. As did his celebrated predecessor, Berlioz tried to fuse together music and drama in his operatic works to create an integrated whole.
Berlioz' large-scale works are difficult to record well, but this live Naxos recording, dating from November, 2003, in Lille, France is outstanding. Jean Claude Casadesus conducts the Orchestra National de Lille with the Slovak Philharmonic Choir performing the varied choral scenes. Tenor Michael Myers is a lyrical and passionate Faust, baritone Alain Vernhes a sardonic and evil Mephistopheles, and mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch a beautiful Marguerite. The liner notes include a detailed synopsis of the work but no liberetto. The two-CD set sells for a budget price which, together with the quality of the work and the performance, make it an excellent way of getting to know the Berlioz beyond the Symphonie Fantastique and the overtures.
There are three famous orchestral interludes in Berlioz' Damnation of Faust, which sometimes are joined together and played as as a collection of excerpts: the Hungarian March at the conclusion of Faust's sojourn in Hungary in Part I, the Dance of the Sylphs' in Part II, which follows Faust's dream of Marguerite, and the Minuet of the Wills- o'- the Wisp in Part III, which accompanies the seduction of Marguerite. These orchestral passages will form a wedge into the work for the new listener, but Berlioz' score includes much other dazzling music.
The highlights of Berlioz' music include include Marguerite's arias, particularly her Romance of longing for Faust at the beginning of Part IV, accompanied by an English horn. Todorovich gives passionate voice to this aria as well as to her song of the King of Thule and her duet with Faust in Part III. There is chilling music for Faust, Mephistopheles, and a chorus of the damned as Mephistopheles leads Faust on two black horses to hell and to eternal damnation. The work includes beautiful and etherial music as well, as it ends quietly with Marguerite in heaven.
There are many abrupt shifts of scene and musical style in Berlioz' Damnation of Faust which have made the work difficult to perform. But it is a grandly ambitious and ultimately successful work, as it tells of Faust's hubris and damnation and the ultimate salvation of Marguerite. This budget-priced recording is a great way to experience Berlioz' great and still too-infrequently heard "legende dramatique".