Worth going to Hell for: Susan Graham
Photo by Dario Acosta © IMG Artists
On Saturday night at Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra concluded their tumultuous 2010-2011 season with Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust, the "dramatic legend" by Hector Berlioz that straddles the fine line between oratorio and full-blown opera. Damnation comes at the end of a season that has seen this proud organization's board file for bankruptcy, a bizarre move that may damage their reputation and pride of place as one of America's premiere ensembles.
Financial difficulties aside, the famous "Philadelphia Sound" was present throughout this performance, from the opening string fugue that begins the piece, through the thundering Rákóczy March that ends Part I. Berlioz stretched his source material here, bringing Faust to the plains of Hungary for no other reason than to insert this famous melody into his piece. Under the baton of chief conductor Charles Dutoit, the Philadelphians showed what a good idea this was.
The star of the evening was mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite, the object of Faust's romantic obsession who comes dangerously close to damnation herself. Ms. Graham entered Verizon Hall halfway through the performance, and demonstrated total engagement and familiarity with this complex material. She brought raw emotion and smooth, rich tone to her two arias: the Song of the King of Thule and the famous "D'amour l'ardente flamme" that marks her exit.
Paul Groves was an impressive, serious presence as the doomed Faust wandering, and ultimately doomed Faust. His opening "Le viel hiver" had the right note of restless wandering. The Study scene was marked by introspection, which turned to abundant energy with the arrival of Méphistopheles. The love duet with Ms. Graham benefited from their time opposite each other in Gluck's Iphégenie en Tauride at the Metropolitan Opera. They shared real chemistry, acting together despite the oratorio setting and making the performance more than just a concert.
David Wilson-Johnson was an appropriately wicked Mephistopheles. He swaggered through his opening duet with Faust and blustered appropriately in the Song of the Flea. He displayed cool command over his will o'the wisps in the scene by the banks of the Elbe, singing over the sleeping Faust with the demonic equivalent of affection. Throughout, Mr. Wilson-Johnson was an expressive presence, using his face and eyes to convey Mephistopheles' intent as he led Faust down the long road to hell. The final gallop and pandemonium was his triumphant moment, and he sunk down, spent.
Mr. Dutoit displayed great energy on the podium, using baton, fingers, eyebrows and elbows to command the great choral, orchestral and vocal forces required for Berlioz' vision. He alternated between the musicians in front of him, to the trio of soloists, to the choristers arrayed above the orchestra in the so-called "Conductor's Circle" of Verizon Hall. He conducted this score in a brusque way, making the rhythms snap and the flames of Hell leap in the tricky Pandemonium chorus. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, filling the roles of soldiers, demons, seraphim and townspeople armed with torches, sang with admirable precision.