Recapturing a revolution
New York — It is often hard to imagine the effect a radical or revolutionary piece must have had on the world-premiere audience. Even the impact of as stormy a work as Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' has been blunted now that it has the repertoire status of a Tchaikovsky symphony , and even student orchestras can play it expertly.
This thought was running through my mind at a performance of Berlioz's ''La Damnation de Faust'' in Carnegie Hall last week. Seiji Ozawa was leading the Boston Symphony, and the cast was for the most part a strong one - Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Thomas Stewart as Mephistopheles, and Frederica von Stade as Marguerite, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver.
Berlioz's work is neither opera nor oratorio. It is a highly personal, stunningly inventive sound-study, in which Berlioz has synthesized the moods of the Goethe text (rather too freely for the score's detractors), and successfully translated those moods into full narrative form by means of voice and orchestra. And though opera directors have often wrestled with the theatrical element in the score, ''Damnation'' remains not stage theater, but rather mind theater.
The music preys thrillingly on the listener's musical imagination, painting vivid pictures, sustaining ethereal moods. The terrifying all-senses assault in the horseback ride to Hell finds Berlioz inventing his own chilling nonsense-syllable language, and using the full orchestra to create an unprecedented pandemonium that even today can be harrowing in the extreme. The concluding redemption scene goes effortlessly to the heart, because the entire work considers religious as well as temporal matters.
What one wants in a performance of this 2 1/2-hour score is a sense of a maestro who had pondered long and deeply about Berlioz's intentions, about just what it was that made the score so radical in its day and makes it so communicative in ours.
It would be nice if the listener could emerge with a complete sense of the ground-breaking nature of the score, the feeling that the colossal scope of vision was captured. The incredible contrasts between moods, from the drive of the ''Rakoczi March'' through the delicate sinuousness of the ''Dance of the Sylphs,'' on to the internal anguish of Marguerite's big aria, ''D'amour l'ardente flamme,'' right on to the chaos of ''Pande-monium'' and the upliftment of Marguerite's apotheosis, are all crucial to the ultimate success of a performance.
Daniel Baren-boim and his Orchestre de Paris achieved all of the above in ''The Damnation'' - and then some - when he brought his orchestra to these shores several years ago. He also brought along the Orchestre de Paris chorus and superb soloists, especially Jessye Norman as Marguerite. Her performance was a revelation in an already astounding evening - for she had the voice to ride orchestral climaxes, with the control to render the most intimate moments with a haunting internal quality.
Two seasons back in the same work, Sir Georg Solti and his Chicago Symphony were dazzling, for both the warmth of the conductor's work (a rarity for him) and the utter brilliance with which the orchestra executed every last detail. There was not a moment too quiet for this orchestra, or too loud. If one admired Berlioz's unique vision with Barenboim, one was awe-struck by the orchestrational skill with which the composer achieved that vision in the Solti performance. Jose van Dam was the superbly insinuating Mephistopheles with Solti , and Kenneth Riegel the well-intentioned Faust. Miss von Stade was stirred to great intimate heights by the maestro in a part for which she is not ideal.
Over a decade ago, Ozawa had offered an impressive account of the score in Boston's Symphony Hall, which was in turned wretchedly recorded by DG records and long since deleted.
Now - as evidenced in the Carnegie Hall performance - Ozawa seems to have retrogressed. He has normalized the radical qualities and polished away all the intentionally harsh angularities of scoring. Nowhere did one sense that Ozawa had looked to Goethe for inspiration, whereas with both Barenboim and Solti, one was convinced they knew the ''Faust'' text well, even intimately.
After more than eight years of firsthand Ozawa-watching in Boston, I was not particularly surprised at this - except that in music which he usually does with some flair, it was a jolt to find his performance so empty of content, so concerned only with getting through the score without ruffles or incident.
This attitude affected Miss von Stade in particular. Her voice is sounding thin indeed these days, and she needs a conductor who can support her on her own vocal terms. Ozawa had her resorting to forcing, and in ''D'amour l'ardente flamme'' all sense of passion realized or frustrated was lacking, thus nullifying the effect of one of the pivotal sections of the work.
Nicolai Gedda seems impervious to errant conductors, and his work was superior (but more of him anon). Thomas Stewart's Mephistopheles offered his usual force of declamation, wedded to a larger-than-life mix of suavity and blustering. The chorus sounded fine, though the diction was not up to its usual standards, and any sense of the group's characterizing its music was not asked for from the maestro. Landmark anniversary
Mr. Gedda is an artist among tenors. His recorded output has yet to be equaled, and, despite claims to the contrary, no tenor singing today has been able to perform with such success in such a variety of roles and music, from Mozart to Massenet, Berlioz to Barber, Schubert to Johann Strauss.
He demonstrated with the Boston Symphony that in the French repertoire he is peerless. Not only is the diction crystal clear, but the musicianship and taste serve to elucidate Berlioz. That said, he also fully understands that singing is no merely instrumental excercise, that the arrival at a high note involves a sense of occasion, of event, as well as a purely musical moment. He can revel in a gleaming high B, and he can astound with a soft, caressing high C sharp.
I can think of many unique performances Gedda has given in recent years, as Gerard in ''Lakme'' and Huon in Weber's ''Oberon,'' both with Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York; several poetic, insightful, haunting Lenskis in Tchaikovsky's ''Eugene Onegin'' at the Met; a recital of Russian songs in Boston; and so many more.
I mention all this now because Mr. Gedda celebrated the 25th anniversary of his Met debut last December. It is an important landmark, made almost trivial when the Met accorded him only one-half of a Sunday evening recital.He shared the bill with Miss von Stade in a dour program that found them both in less than ideal voice. James Levine's piano-playing was supportive but insufficient impetus to nudge either singer out of the doldrums.
He deserved a full operatic evening. The BSO ''Damnation'' (despite the title) was a more fittingly important tribute.
On Sunday, May 8, Miss Queler will feature Mr. Gedda in the title role of Berlioz's ''Benvenuto Cellini,'' and that event, too, will properly celebrate the artistry of this half-century's most remarkable and versatile tenor.