OPERA NEWS, September 2002
La Damnation de Faust, Dresden Music Festival, 2 June 2002
La Damnation de Faust
Those who believe that outstanding opera singers and stage personalities are extinct were taught a lesson at a concert performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust at this year's Dresden Music Festival (June 2). José van Dam treated every word and note of Méphistophélès as a precious gem; he shaped and colored phrases so knowingly and insightfully that it seemed he and not Berlioz had written them. The experience came close to operatic bliss. Not a single note betrayed the fact that this grand seigneur of bass-baritones is now in the fifth decade of his career. (He made his debut in 1961 in Paris.)

Despite van Dam's artistry, when Susan Graham entered, she immediately commanded the stage, seemingly without effort. It was impossible to take one's eyes off her, even before she had sung a note. Her body language, her dreamy facial expression, her whole bearing already seemed the essence of Marguerite. Her first words ("Que l'air est étouffant!") soared like a fragile, deliciously light breeze, as if emerging from the character's innocent yet troubled mind. With all its gorgeous simplicity, the line seemed at the same time overshadowed by dark foreboding. Similarly, with a delicate yet firm "Folie!" she dismissed her dream of a happy future with Faust. Throughout, it felt as if Graham actually lived her music; easily floating her voice on seemingly endless breath, the mezzo sang in a natural, unpretentious manner while at the same time artfully disclosing profound meaning in every word. No other singer comes to mind who could equal Graham in her Fach these days. Not unexpectedly, she transformed "D'amour l'ardente flamme" into a drama within the drama. It was a strikingly intense rendering and the evening's highpoint, meticulously developed from the slow opening soaked in dark gold to the hastened, breathless, delirious ending.

Her Faust, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, was not quite on this level. He is handsome and a good actor, but vocally he never approached the heights of Graham's and van Dam's interpretations. His piano phrases, particularly in the upper register, were shaky and pinched, and top notes sounded flat and lusterless. As Brander, Henry Waddington had plenty of stamina, if not sheer beauty of tone. The Chorus of the Théâtre de la Monnaie sang marvelously, and, under the baton of Antonio Pappano, the Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie played brillantly, providing a shimmering backdrop for the soloists. (The assembled forces went on to perform a staged version of this work at the Monnaie in June; our review will appear soon.)

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