Searching for Faust’s voice
There may be another reason why many tenors did not want to perform the role: in spite of its vocal complexity and length, Faust has no traditional aria, while both Méphistophélès and Marguerite, the other two main characters of the work, have their show-piece. Marguerite, in fact, is given two, which have become two of the most well-known vocal pieces by Berlioz. This also explains why, despite the lack of big names for the role of Faust, La damnation de Faust has been recorded quite often: few major mezzos would lose the opportunity to record their interpretation of Marguerite. Music lovers are therefore spoiled in that respect, being given a choice between two versions casting Regine Créspin, one in Italian featuring Giulietta Simionato, a live performance with Marylin Horne, and others with Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade, Yvonne Minton, Anne Sophie von Otter, Jennifer Larmore and Susan Graham.
At the Chicago Symphony Hall, Faust recaptured the right to his title role, thanks to one of the very few interpreters around today who can adequately face Berlioz’s vocal writing. Indeed, since his debut in Benvenuto Cellini under John Eliot Gardiner in 2002, tenor Gregory Kunde has performed most of Berlioz’s major works: Les Troyens followed in 2003, La damnation de Faust in 2004, and, more recently, Roméo et Juliette. In his approach to these works, he relies on his thirty-years career as tenore di grazia, and particularly on his expertise in the most demanding belcanto roles (Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Elvino in La sonnambula, Arturo in I puritani, Percy in Anna Bolena). More recently, his voice has expanded in its lower register, so that he could enlarge his repertoire to include such dramatic parts as the title role in Rossini’s Otello or Pirro in Ermione, while maintaining incisive high notes. These very characteristics make Kunde’s singing suite the needs of Berlioz’s Damnation. Despite the lack of charm in the color of his voice, Kunde portrayed a suggestive Faust: as an interpreter, he found appropriate solutions to the different dramatic situations; as a singer, he cleared the many hurdles of his role.
Susanne Mentzer, on the other hand, was quite disappointing as Marguérite: her voice always sounded correct, but she rarely used it to convey emotion. British baritone David Wilson-Johnson accurately outlined Méphistophélès: although he does not possess a strikingly powerful voice, he showed a very solid technique and an insightful phrasing. The result was an intriguing interpretation, in which the sinister connotations of the character were well-balanced with his many grotesque features. Jonathan Lemalu amused the audience with his exuberant performance of Brander’s ballade.
Charles Dutoit conducted the performance with impressive energy and subtle elegance. Under his baton, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra confirmed the outstanding quality of its wind section, though sometimes the strings, expecially in the most transparent passages, seemed to lose control of the quality of the sound. The Chicago Symphony Chorus fulfilled its demanding task with lush sonorities and remarkable cohesion.