Berlioz: La damnation de Faust; La mort de Cléopâtre

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WORKS: La damnation de Faust; La mort de Cléopâtre
PERFORMER: Nicolai Gedda, Gabriel Bacquier, Janet Baker, Pierre Thau, Maria Peronne; Paris Opera Chorus, Orchestre de Paris/Georges Prêtre, LSO/Alexander Gibson
Neither of these performances of Berlioz’s concert opera will displace Davis, Barenboim and Nagano, but each offers ample rewards. The EMI version (reissued without libretto) dates from 1970. It is justifiably hyped with praise for Baker, and has the inestimable advantage of Gedda, nonpareil in Berlioz at this period: a mature Faust, as is proper, but with the right timbre for this music. Leech possesses the timbre, but his ringing top notes sound too youthful; a likeable performance, although in the Part III aria he sounds apologetic at invading a girl’s bedroom. Particularly in a heart-stopping Romance, Baker catches Marguerite’s naivety better than the painfully vibrant Pollet who, moreover, fails to blend with Leech in the love duet. Surprisingly, however, it is Dutoit who gets a bit of sexual chemistry here; Prêtre loses by one of his dangerously fast tempi (the ‘Ride to the Abyss’ is more manic than sinister).


Yet it is Prêtre who otherwise taps a vein of mysterious poetry in orchestral passages, including the opening and the sinister Minuet. Bacquier is a monotonously angry Mephistopheles, whereas Cachemaille finds humour and subtlety as well as contempt for the mere mortal: a magnificent interpretation. Otherwise the Dutoit is a solid modern performance, by which I mean reliable and temperate; the Prêtre sounds its age but feels more spontaneous, and is based on a richer orchestral palette (horns and bassoons with a ‘real’ French sound) and sharper attack. There is a bonus in Baker’s fine Cléopâtre; the Dutoit includes a Trojans sampler, not indexed. Julian Rushton