Bryn Terfel’s magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam

it was something of an occasion when he returned this week for a concert
version of La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz at the
Concertgebouw. Terfel was certainly worth the wait, but there was more to

La Damnation de Faust
is based on Part One of Goethe’s Faust, but is not completely
faithful to it. For one thing, as betrayed by the title, Faust is damned in
the end. He signs off his soul to Méphistophélès, not in
exchange for youth and earthly pleasures, but to save Marguerite’s soul.
She is condemned to death after accidentally killing her mother by giving
her too much sleeping draught. Why is Faust damned when he signs off his
soul for such an altruistic reason? One could devote hours pondering this
eschatological conundrum, time which would be better spent listening to
Berlioz, who paints magnificent frescos of heaven and hell, with big slices
of human futility and misery in-between. The composer called his creation a
“légende dramatique”, a vague enough description to cover the
different forms it takes: opera, oratorio, symphonic poem. It’s a
masterpiece of incredible versatility with prominent roles for the
orchestra and chorus.

Under their chief conductor Marc Soustrot, the Malmö Symphony
Orchestra beautifully brought out the various facets of the score, from the
gossamer texture of the ballet music to the blood-curdling tumult of the
Ride to the Abyss. There were some slippery pitches during Faust’s opening
aria, “Le vieil hiver”, and some drooping in the sustained accompaniment of
his Invocation to Nature. Overall, the playing was more precise in the
purely orchestral passages, such as the opera’s megahit, the Hungarian
March. Perhaps more rehearsal time was needed with the singers for that
last bit of polish. Nearer perfection was the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir. A
youthful sounding alto section gave an attractive lightness to the mixed
choruses. After deftly cavorting through the carousing songs, the men sang
a splendid Pandemonium. And in the final scene the women welcomed
Marguerite in heaven with soft radiance, tapering their vibrato to make up
for the absence of a children’s choir. Deservedly, the choir stole a big
chunk of the final applause.

Besides the return of Bryn Terfel to Amsterdam, this performance also
marked the overdue debut of mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch at the Concertgebouw.
She was in great form as Marguerite, her voice warm and graceful and with a
lovely sheen to the upper register. The King of Thule aria had poise and
simplicity. Taken at a deliberate pace, “D’amour l’ardente flamme” was a
poignant duet with the fantastic cor anglais solo. Koch returns to
Amsterdam later this year to appear at Dutch National Opera for the first
time, singing Jocaste in George Enescu’s Oedipe. Paul Groves gave
a mixed performance as Faust. The tenor had the necessary heft for the
role, but his ascents to the high notes were bumpy, causing strain in the
love duet. He seemed most comfortable when singing fairly loudly and
sounded best in “Nature immense”, which requires broad phrasing and doesn’t
go above high A. Bass-baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer was rock solid of
pitch and comely of tone as Brander. The student only shows up at the inn
to sing the Song of the Rat and the role is far too paltry when it’s so
well cast.

Berlioz’s Méphistophélès makes no studied attempts to
insinuate himself into Faust’s life. He merely shows up and takes charge;
Faust is too exhausted from his ennui to protest. The devil’s persona
remains the same throughout, but Terfel cannily contoured the character
with subtle shifts in temperament. He started off blasé, with an
offhand rendition of the absurd Song of the Flea. Then he summoned a vision
of Marguerite for the sleeping Faust with a benign, balmy “Voici des
roses”. While orchestrating Marguerite’s seduction, he smirked his way
through the mocking serenade “Devant la maison”. Mission accomplished, his
booming voice took on a menacing edge. By the time Mephisto summons his two
horses for the ride to hell, Terfel was a vocal cyclone. Naturally, the
voice has lost some of its previous gloss, but the distinctive timbre,
dynamic facility and commanding sonority are all still there. Then there
were the priceless Terfel touches: meaningfully rolled Rs, suggestive
pianos, nasal resonance for dramatic effect. Faced with such force of
personality and voice, anyone would sign a pact with the devil without
reading the small print.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Faust – Paul Groves, tenor; Marguerite – Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano;
Méphistophélès – Sir Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone; Brander –
Edwin Crossley-Mercer, bass-baritone. Conductor – Marc Soustrot. MDR
Leipzig Radio Choir. Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Heard at the
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Monday, 4th of June, 2018.

image_description=Sir Bryn Terfel [Photo courtesy of Harlequin Agency Limited]
product_title=Bryn Terfel’s magnetic Mephisto in Amsterdam
product_by=By Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Sir Bryn Terfel [Photo courtesy of Harlequin Agency Limited]