Grant Park Music Festival closes in heavenly style with Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”

August 21, 2016
Kristinn Sigmundsson was Mephistopheles in Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust" Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

Kristinn Sigmundsson was Mephistopheles in Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival offered one of those improbable nights when everything was close to perfection. The day’s thunderstorms departed, leaving an ideal late summer Chicago evening with refreshing lakefront breezes. The usual screaming sirens and motorcycle noise were so strangely absent that one vaguely wondered if Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street had been closed.

Most importantly, the performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust was extraordinary. With a fusion of superb solo singing, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus at their considerable finest, and Carlos Kalmar drawing all the elements together into a magnificent whole, Friday night’s full-blooded performance was the concert high point of the summer and one of the highlights of recent years. One could hardly imagine a better finale to crown the Grant Park season. 

When Hector Berlioz was inspired to compose for the voice, it was invariably in a frenzied burst of creativity, dashing off individual arias and choruses while less concerned about structure and how or if the disparate parts fit together.

Such is the case with his Romeo et Juliette, and, especially, with La damnation de Faust, which is neither fish nor fowl—more operatic and theatrical than an oratorio yet too episodic and nonlinear for a staging. Lyric Opera mounted a visually striking if dramatically baffling production in 2010 that made a valiant yet ultimately unsuccessful case for presenting the work in the opera house.

Friday night’s outstanding performance at the Pritzker Pavilion showed that the concert hall–or outdoor pavilion–is the true home for this work. Berlioz’s Legende dramatique may be episodic in structure but a concert places the emphasis on the score, and Berlioz’s Faust offers some of his most inspired music, as was made manifest Friday night.

Jonathan Johnson. Photo: Norman Timonera

Jonathan Johnson. Photo: Norman Timonera

Jonathan Johnson had the largest assignment in the title role of the aged philosopher who sells his soul to the devil for love and eternal youth. The Georgia native possesses a youthful, attractive tenor ideal for French repertory, secure and flexible with a sweet-toned top. The third-year member of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center sang with taste, superb French diction and technical security throughout.

Johnson was less successful on the characterization side. While exemplary in style, too much of his singing was literal and generalized in expression, lacking emotional intensity and a varied dramatic response to the text. Even in the searing final confrontation with Mephistopheles and Ride to the Abyss Johnson’s laid-back singing proved low-voltage.

No complaints about Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Mephistopheles. The towering Icelandic bass found an ideal balance between concert and opera, bringing a veteran’s ease to the wily tempter and enough character touches to keep things interesting. He wielded his big instrument with impressive agility in a nimble “Song of the Flea” and brought dramatic command throughout, notably in the powerful final trio.

Marguerite doesn’t show up until the second half in Berlioz’s version but Allyson McHardy made the most of her belated appearance as Faust’s doomed beloved. Resplendent in a midnight-blue gown, McHardy’s high mezzo-soprano proved apt for this Gallic idiom. The Canadian singer brought inner feeling and refined lovely tone to the King of Thule ballad, enhanced by Terri Van Valkinburgh’s sensitive obbligato viola. In the abandoned Marguerite’s Romance (“D’amour l’ardente flamme”) Hardy sang beautifully with touching melancholy expression; Judith Kulb’s accompanying English horn solo was equally affecting.

In his brief assignment baritone Stephen Hegedus brought relish and flexibility to Brander’s satiric “Song of the Rat.”

Sadly, the festival stinted on Berlioz’s requirement for a children’s chorus in the final section. Apart from that economic cheap-out, the glorious vocalism of the Grant Park Chorus–prepared by Michael Black, chorus master of Lyric Opera– provided one of their finest outings of the summer. The men of the chorus have most of the heavy lifting in this work and were wonderfully characterful throughout as townspeople, swaggering student revelers and evil demons, with the women radiant as celestial voices in the final moments.

Carlos Kalmar presented the belated Grant Park premiere of Damnation of Faust in 2003, and it is clearly a work that remains close to his heart. Even those skeptical about this Berlioz work would be made believers by Kalmar’s total dedication and commitment.

The festival’s principal conductor drew all the elements of this two-hour work together organically—there was ironic panache to the Hungarian March, feather-light delicacy in the Dance of the Sylphs, and soaring passion in the love duet. The extended final section was masterful, moving from thrilling excitement of the Ride to the Abyss, to the impassioned final trio, and shimmering spiritual radiance in the final moments.

At the end of a long and tightly scheduled summer season, the Grant Park Orchestra rose to the occasion with magnificent playing in all departments–refined of tone, scrupulously balanced and wonderfully characterful in all sections and solos.

What would Chicago do without Carlos Kalmar at the helm of the Grant Park Music Festival? Let’s hope this wonderful partnership continues for many years to come.

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