Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat courtesy of the SLSO.

This past Friday and Saturday (May 5 and 6), Music Director Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) closed out the season with the 1846 opera/oratorio hybrid “La damnation de Faust” (“The Damnation of Faust”) by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869).

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Curtain calls for "Damnation of Faust"

Originally planned for March 2020, this Romantic blockbuster was cancelled due to SARS-Cov-2. It was worth the wait. Friday night’s performance sent Faust to hell while sending the audience to paradise with a combination of power, precision, and sheer sonic overload. The massive orchestra (around 85 by my count), adult chorus, children’s chorus, and four soloists filled the Powell Hall stage as well as the aisle between the stage and first row of seats. There were offstage instrumentalists and even a quintet from the St. Children’s Choirs in the dress circle singing the roles of heavenly spirits.

Berlioz, lover of grand gestures that he was, would surely have adored this performance. Everyone in our party certainly did, along with the rest of the large crowd.

Michael Spyres
Photo courtesy SLSO

After the encomiums I bestowed on the SLSO for “Le sacre du Printemps” last week, my well of superlatives might be running dry. Even so, I need to draw from it once again if I am to adequately describe the sheer magnificence of what we saw last Friday.

Let’s start with the orchestra, which once again, displayed their mastery of a score that the SLSO has not performed in over 24 years—not surprising, given the massive personnel demands. Bold, rich strings, powerful brass and percussion, heavenly woodwinds—the SLSO musicians delivered it all throughout the work’s more than two-and-a-half hour length (nearly three hours if you include intermission)..

The Brobdingnagian scope of the thing didn’t mean there weren’t exquisite solo and small ensemble moments, however. The ones that stood out in my mind included Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu’s duet with soprano Isabel Leonard’s Marguerite in the “King of Thule” song, Cally Banham’s romantic English horn solo in Scene XV as Marguerite longs for the return of the fickle Faust, the flutes and piccolos chirping merrily along the Elbe in the bucolic Scene VII, and the trio of piccolos “gaily tripping, lightly skipping” in the “Minuet of the Wills-o’-the-Wisp” in Scene XII.

Isabel Leonard
Photo courtesy SLSO

Speaking of soloists, the four singers were equally impressive in their own right. Three of the four singers were the same ones originally engaged for the 2020 performance and all four were completely on point musically, with clear and powerful voices. I didn’t find the acting of all four equally convincing but that feels like a minor quibble overall.

Michael Spyres was the very image of a tormented and narcissistic Faust, lamenting his lost youth and seemingly afflicted by a serious case of anhedonia. The character’s relentless self-indulgence—possibly a mirror of the composer’s own—could be tiresome in the hands of a singer less fully engaged with the text, but Spyres made him sympathetic. Faust’s heedless self-destruction works dramatically only if there is some sense of a tragic fall. Spyres gave us that fall and did so in a voice of truly impressive range. The program lists Spyres as a tenor and Faust is, in fact, a tenor role. But Spyres himself identifies as a “baritenor”—a tenor with powerful lower octave. That gave his character an impressive sense of vocal weight.

Bass John Relyea’s Méphistophélès was a perfect personification of evil. Cynical, callous, filled with sadistic glee at the damage he’s causing, this Méphistophélès was as fascinating as he was repugnant. A veteran of the operatic stage, Relyea’s resume includes classic villains like Sparafucile in “Rigoletto” and the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlos” as well as Méphistophélès, so it’s no surprise that his performance was a fine mix of stentorian singing and sneering malevolence.

John Relyea
Photo courtesy SLSO

Soprano Isabel Leonard was Marguerite, the painfully naïve target of Faust’s lust. Leonard sang with passion and conviction, but seemed to connect with the audience and her character only intermittently, spending most of her time looking at the score. When she shifted her focus from the score to the audience and the role—as she did in the “Romance” in Scene XV and the “King of Thule” song in Scene XI—her Marguerite became positively radiant.

Bass Patrick Guetti’s cameo as the drunken student Brander was the evening’s surprise scene stealer. A replacement for 2020’s Anthony Clark Evans, Guetti was the epitome of swaggering irreverence, gleefully singing of a rat whose high life in the kitchen comes to an abrupt end. His was the most fully theatrical performance of the evening and a clear audience favorite.

Let us now praise the SLSO Chorus (under guest director Patrick Dupré Quigley) and the SLSO Children’s Choirs (led by artistic director Barbara Berner). “The Damnation of Faust” relies heavily on the adult chorus. The adults appear in the majority of the scenes, playing everything from dancing peasants to raucous demons singing in an invented “satanic” language that reads like a mix of French, German, and Medieval English. The children are added in the final scene portraying esprits célestes welcoming Marguerite to le ciel. The singing of both groups was consistently clear, potent, and dramatically varied. Whoever finally succeeds Amy Kaiser (who retired at the end of the last season) will find themselves leading as fine a collection of choristers as you will find anywhere.

Patrick Guetti
Photo courtesy SLSO

At the helm of this musical and dramatic spectacle, Maestro Denève displayed his characteristic ability to clarify the most intimate of musical moments while delivering a massive emotional wallop when the Berlioz calls for it. The final two scenes, with their contrast between the wild excesses of hell and the otherworldly serenity of heaven, were in many ways a distillation of everything that was so outstanding about this performance.

To paraphrase a line from “Porgy and Bess,” it took a long pull to get there but we finally anchored in the Promised Land.

Next at Powell Hall: Damon Gupton conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the Ludwig Göransson soundtrack for “Marvel Studio’s Black Panther” to accompany a showing of the film on the big screen. Performances are Friday at 7 pm and Saturday at 2 and 7 pm, May 12 and 13. On Sunday, May 14 at 3 pm Stephanie Childress conducts the SLSO Youth Orchestra in their season finale with music of Wagner, Debussy, and Dvořák. After that, Powell closes down for two years for extensive renovation and expansion. Post-season events continue at the Stifel Theatre downtown, which is also where many of next season’s concerts will take place.

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