It’s been said, rightly, that Hector Berlioz was a consummately 19th-century artist. He was, to be sure, an unabashed idealist, a believer that music’s raison d’etre was nothing more or less than the wholesale reorganization of the listener’s soul through sound.
He was also a keeper of childlike dreams, forever questing after what Stendhal called simply la promesse du bonheur, the promise of happiness. Yet he was not insensitive — to the disenchantments of love and learning, to the fragmenting nature of experience in a modern-tilting world, to the infuriating tensions between popular success and artistic integrity.
All of this lies behind “The Damnation of Faust,” the composer’s lovably personal, quixotically grand masterwork which returned to Symphony Hall on Thursday night for the first of three performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In it, Berlioz managed to lash together his collection of crumbling certainties, to summon the highest in his own art, to risk complete financial ruin in doing so, and to place the whole package before a public whose approval he craved.
A first-time listener encountering this multi-hued beast in the musical wild may be inclined to begin with the basic taxonomic question: what is this thing? Inspired by (and very freely adapted from) Goethe’s “Faust,” Berlioz described his piece as a “dramatic legend”; others have preferred the word oratorio. The scholar David Cairns reminds us that it is also, ineluctably, autobiography. Finally, we might call this score an opera designed to be witnessed on that infinitely protean stage between one’s ears.
For its part, the BSO has Berlioz’s music deep in its bloodstream, and it has maintained “Damnation” in particular as something of a calling card (James Levine had the confidence to bring “Damnation” on tour to France.) One imagines its performance parts residing in well-worn folders, kept on some high shelf in the orchestra’s library alongside the “Symphonie Fantastique” and “Daphnis et Chloe” and close to a bust of the conductor Charles Munch.
This week’s performances are being overseen by the veteran Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit, a conductor who knows his Berlioz as well as any. Dutoit’s podium work on Thursday, if rarely inspired or particularly detail-oriented, had his signature air of unflappable authority. The BSO played virtuosically for him, and the conductor’s own easy affection for these players is also clear. At the end of the night, returning from the wings to acknowledge applause, Dutoit casually hooked the arm of a surprised Robert Sheena (English horn) and dragged him toward the podium for a well-deserved solo bow.
Thursday’s cast of vocal soloists was generally strong, though with an inconsistent link at its center. According to an orchestra spokesperson, tenor Paul Groves, who sang the role of the world-weary Faust, was “suffering from a throat condition, which became apparent to him during the first half of the concert.” Presumably because of this, Grove’s upper range did not have its usual mixture of sweetness and clarion strength. As Faust’s love Marguerite, Susan Graham was in fine and supple voice, and David Kravitz was wonderful in the smaller role of Brander. But John Relyea was the real standout as a diablolically rakish Méphistophélès, singing with a deeply burnished bass-baritone but also stalking his prey with suavely casual joie de vivre, as if he might propose, only if Faust wished, of course, that their final ride to hell include a quick stop for some oysters and champagne.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Harvard Square both made vibrant contributions, especially in the score’s sublime closing pages, in which Faust meets his doom but Marguerite ascends to heaven. Here again, one senses that boundless 19th-century optimism that Berlioz could not shake, even at the very moment he was concluding a great parable of the artist’s own defeat.
Sadly in this case, life took its cues from art. The 1846 Paris premiere of “Damnation” ruined Berlioz financially. And the lack of interest shown by the public was utterly heartbreaking (“nothing in my career wounded me more deeply,” he wrote). But defeat of course was temporary. In a beautiful phrase, Charles Gounod once described Berlioz’s art in its own day as “gold that had not yet been coined,” a vast public treasure not yet in circulation. Especially for “Damnation,” it would not be long.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Charles Dutoit, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Oct. 28)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.