BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust

Often luck and relationships play a more
important role than talent. Lille (Rijssel in Dutch) is a magnificent city in the North of France and
its architecture betrays the fact that for almost 800 years it was one of the four big cities of the
county of Flanders till Louis XIV conquered it. The city had a fine opera house though until
recently the company was in a bad patch and there was no season for several years. It is now
slowly on its way back. In 1976 Jean-Claude Casadesus became the principal conductor of the
newly formed Orchestre National de Lille to which ensemble he devoted a big part of his career.
Of course he took conducting assignments elsewhere and I heard him conduct at the Flanders and
the Walloon Opera. He struck me as exceptionally able in the French repertoire; having a
lightness of touch without becoming superficial and I always thought he never got the career he
deserved. He once more proves his mastering of such a score on this recording and one almost
forgets that his orchestra is only second rate. The song of the flea gets the appropriate lightness
while ‘L’amour, d’ardente flamme’ receives its portion of tragedy. Casadesus leads orchestra and
singers in a way that makes ‘Damnation’ an opera, inevitably leading up to its redeeming end,
instead of the somewhat unequal collection of arias, marches and ballet it can be in a lesser
maestro’s hands.

It is a joy to finally meet Alain Vernhes in a big part on records. The French bass-baritone (and
not a baritone as noted on the sleeve) had an unusual career. He became an opera singer but left
the profession due to lack of engagements (not unusual in France for many years where ‘imports’
by definition were almost always considered to be better singers and where good French singers
were often literally on the dole). After several years Vernhes tried again and this time he
succeeded though as with Casadesus he didn’t get the big career. Although he is no longer young
his rolling voice and tremendous acting capacities can still make quite an impression as I gladly
noted last year when I heard him as Gounod’s Méphistophèles. Granted, the voice is somewhat
rougher than José van Dam’s and his lower notes are, as proven on this recording, not his best
ones. But he has the French style in his blood and masterfully characterizes each of his solos
(sardonic in his flea song; threatening in his ‘devant la maison’) and he easily surpasses such
exotic birds as Fischer-Dieskau, Lloyd or Pertusi. Moreover the voice is fuller than
Cachemaille’s or Bastin’s and for those who don’t know him his interpretation will come as a
nice surprise.

Michael Myers’ Faust is well-known as he already recorded the role in 1987 for Philips. The
voice has become more manly and for a moment one confuses him with Gedda but the chinks in
the vocal armour ( the voice becoming smaller above the stave; not always a firm line) soon tell
the listener that Myers is somewhat of a poor man’s Gedda; especially if one compares with the
early sixties highlights recording with Gedda and Rita Gorr.

Marie-Ange Todorovitch didn’t convince me. Yes, she is French and maybe a dugazon (a high
mezzo like Von Stade or Von Otter) suits Marguerite better than a powerhouse like Gorr or
Crespin but the voice has not enough beauty in it and sounds often somewhat slack. Her
‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’ is unremarkable though she is more convincing in ‘D’amour l’ardente
flamme’. Nevertheless I regret Naxos didn’t engage the formidable Béatrice Uria-Monzon whose
performance in the house some years ago led me to believe here was Gorr’s successor. Sadly the
lady is not much interested in recording as she told me herself.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Hector Berlioz: La damnation de Faust
product_title=Hector Berlioz: La damnation de Faust
product_by=Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Marguerite), Michael Myers (Faust), Alain Vernhes (Méphistophélès), René Schirrer (Brander). Orchestre de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus.
product_id=Naxos 8.660116-17 [2CDs]