Recapturing a revolution
It is often hard to imagine the effect a radical or revolutionary piece must have had on the world-premiere audience. Even the impact of as stormy a work as Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' has been blunted now that it has the repertoire status of a Tchaikovsky symphony , and even student orchestras can play it expertly.
This thought was running through my mind at a performance of Berlioz's ''La Damnation de Faust'' in Carnegie Hall last week. Seiji Ozawa was leading the Boston Symphony, and the cast was for the most part a strong one - Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Thomas Stewart as Mephistopheles, and Frederica von Stade as Marguerite, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver.
Berlioz's work is neither opera nor oratorio. It is a highly personal, stunningly inventive sound-study, in which Berlioz has synthesized the moods of the Goethe text (rather too freely for the score's detractors), and successfully translated those moods into full narrative form by means of voice and orchestra. And though opera directors have often wrestled with the theatrical element in the score, ''Damnation'' remains not stage theater, but rather mind theater.
The music preys thrillingly on the listener's musical imagination, painting vivid pictures, sustaining ethereal moods. The terrifying all-senses assault in the horseback ride to Hell finds Berlioz inventing his own chilling nonsense-syllable language, and using the full orchestra to create an unprecedented pandemonium that even today can be harrowing in the extreme. The concluding redemption scene goes effortlessly to the heart, because the entire work considers religious as well as temporal matters.
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