The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of March 25, 2003.
Orchestras, like individuals, can have life-changing experiences.
Friday night's New Mexico Symphony Orchestra presentation of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust was just such an event. It was, in every sense, a triumph.
The opener for the NMSO's ambitious Berlioz festival, it confirmed the splendor and rightness of that ambition. The vision of conductor Guillermo Figueroa, it also marked, in a drama that had its Berliozian resonance, his triumphant return to life after being literally at death's door only a few weeks before.
Stretched to reach well beyond their usual efforts, it also proved a resounding triumph for the orchestra and chorus, whose performance over more than two and a half hours revealed another level of strength and versatility.
Berlioz, an inveterate rulebreaker, would have been delighted to think of himself as a transformational force. Premiered in Paris in 1846 to both confusion and admiration, The Damnation of Faust sits in a class all by itself. Categorized as a concert opera, it has, like an opera, a plot, characters, scenes. Yet it is not meant to be staged, and the few attempts to do so have failed. It is not strictly concert either because the vivid writing cries out for a theatrical response.
Berlioz acknowledged that his music would have to wait for audiences in the future. Given today's movie culture, his music seems quite accessible. He is a cinematographer who discourses in sound rather than pictures. Images tumble forth in the mind as he jumps freely from one scene to another without explicitly connecting logic. Because he cuts to the emotional core, the heart can easily follow.
Berlioz's version of the legend of the world-weary Faust, who loses his soul to the devil, produced a brilliant, finely calculated score that still challenges performers. The stage was packed Friday night, the orchestra expanded to include four harps, two tubas and other extra winds plus extra strings, as well as the NMSO chorus on risers behind, and four vocal soloists.
Figueroa led with commanding vigor, the music seeming to give him strength. Alert to color, quick shifts in mood, theatrical contrasts, he gave a masterfully paced interpretation, clear and forceful in its dramatic drive. The orchestra responded with sustained discipline and focus, producing a supple, richly varied color palette. There was outstanding playing from all sections, with particularly expressive solos from violist Gary Logsdon and English horn player Melissa Peña.
The NMSO Chorus, meticulously prepared by director Roger Melone, reveled in their varied roles that ranged from peasants, drunkards and soldiers to hosts of heaven and hell. The precision, clarity and expressive scope of their performance marked a new high.
Luminous of spirit and voice, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Clawson created a deeply affecting portrait of Marguerite, Faust's abandoned love, forging a perfect balance between stage and concert. Patrick Marques projected the role of Faust in rich, even tenor tones expressive musically though limited dramatically. Baritone Justino Diaz made a captivating Mephistopheles, full of theatrical dash despite some vocal shortfalls. Baritone Brian Podolny gave an engaging cameo turn as the drunkard Brander.