Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Charles Dutoit, conductor. November 1, 2008.

Symphony Center, Chicago. Upper Balcony Center Left (Seat Q103, $59)

The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in Four Parts, Op. 24 (1846) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Part I: Plains of Hungary
Part II: North Germany
Part III: Marguerite's Room
Part IV

Story. Mephistopheles arranges Faust and Marguerite, who are in each other's dreams, to meet. They fall in love, and then part ways. Marguerite is condemned to death because she accidentally killed her mother. Faust signs over his life to Mephistopheles to save Marguerite but is transported to hell instead.

Susanne Mentzer, Mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Gregory Kunde, Tenor (Faust)
David Wilson-Johnson, Baritone (Mephistopheles)
Jonathan Lemalu, Bass (Brander)
Chicago Symphony Chorus – Duain Wolfe, director
Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago – Emily Ellsworth, director

We booked these tickets for our short trip to Chicago. The CSO, which began in 1891, is quite famous, having been led by such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Gerog Solti and Daniel Barenboim. The building is named after the first director Theodore Thomas. The current director is Bernard Haitink who is now about 80 years old. The concert hall is also quite impressive, it reminds one of Carnegie Hall, except it's probably quite a bit bigger (we had to walk up to the fifth floor to our seats.) Both visibility and acoustics are good: we had a good view and could hear clearly. Orchestra members arere seated on multiple levels, making them clearly visible to the audience. There were quite a few empty seats in our section.

The orchestra, like any large orchestra, has 90 to 100 members. The chorus was quite big with 150 members, and at the end another 50 young children joined in. So there were altogether about 250 performers. Two sets of timpani (4 drums in each set) played at times by four people and brass instruments in the background make for interesting spectacle.

The work is quite long, 2 hours and 15 miinutes of actual performance. We were a bit worried about having to take the subway back to the hotel; it turned out okay though.

The program notes talk about some of the unforgettable sounds (and I quote): the brazen swagger of the Hungarian March; the flash that brings Mephistopheles and blinds Faust to all reason; the drunken “Amen” fugue sung over the demise of a rat; the remarkably sensuous, yet icy tone of Mephistopheles's lullaby, uncannily accompanied by cornet, trombones, and bassoons; the brilliant clash of two simultaneous choruses – the soldiers singing in B-flat major and in French, the students in D minor in Latin. Or the stirring heartbeats in Marguerite's music; the plaintive voice of the solo viola in her “The King of Thule” or the heartbreaking English horn solo of her Romance; Mephistopheles's Serenade, with its grand guitar strumming; Faust's noble, impassioned Invocation to Nature; the lone, ominous call of hunting horns that precedes Faust's downfall; the wild, reckless, galloping Ride to the Abyss; the final horrible babbling of the damned. We caught most of them. I am embarrassed to say the only piece familiar to me is the “Hungarian March.” The gibberish (“Has has”) sung by the chorus of the damned was quite entertaining.

For a dramatic legend, the performance wasn't particularly dramatic. They did put up subtitles in English (sung mostly in French), but the program notes don't have a copy of the libretto. The story is a bit strange, but I don't know if it is faithful to Goethe.

Not a bad concert, but not a great one either. Perhaps it was the flat dynamics, or perhaps the tenor, who had most of the singing role, wasn't that great. I am glad to have a chance to see the orchestra though. Loren Maazel and the New York Philharmonic have nothing to be ashamed of.

It turns out we booked “Faust” tickets as part of our Metropolitan Opera subscription. James Levein will be conducting, and the work will be staged. I wonder how the performances would compare.

The Tribune critic was impressed.

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