THE DAMNATION OF FAUST – Absolute Heaven at Davies Symphony Hall

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Conductor Charles Dutoit, taking the podium for the second time in two weeks, guided the San Francisco Symphony and its magnificent Chorus, along with four guest soloists, the SF Girls Chorus, and Oakland’s Pacific Boychoir in a non-stop and stunningly beautiful production of Berlioz’s LA DAMNATION DE FAUST.

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CHARLES DUTOIT, Conductor and HECTOR BERLIOZ, Composer

Defined as a “Légende” in four parts – sans Intermission – the presentation was a dramatic test of endurance for its hundreds of musicians (at least the singers had the occasional chance to stand up) and throngs of listeners confined to their seats. Not necessary! In spite of the Symphony’s remarkable record for exiting in and around the stroke of 10 PM, no one complains about the Ballet’s occasional 7:30 curtain and double intermissions nor the Opera’s unedited versions of Wagner. Berlioz’s “Damnation” is an exquisite work and this current rendition of it serves it magnificently. There is simply no reason for its attendees to be put through a Test of Fire.

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GREGORY KUNDE, tenor – Faust

Gregory Kunde, Tenor – has appeared in the role of “Faust” with the London Philharmonia Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. While making his debut with the SF Symphony, he is also scheduled to repeat the role with the Dallas Symphony and the Bavarian Radio Symphony. His recordings include Bellini’s “Bianca & Fernando“. In Scene 9 – Faust’s Aria, “Merci, doux crepuscule” (“Thanks, gentle twilight”) the vibrant treble of Mr. Kunde’s upper register shone through. His security with and easy placement of a pianissimo High A-flat entrance to “Que j’aime ce silence” (“How I adore this silence”) is but one example of how this romantic tenor maintains a fully blended tone, not resorting to disconnected falsetto. Still on the same breath – “et comme je respire un air pur” (“and breathe a pure air”), the composer demands the singer drop the phrase slightly more than an octave to 2nd-line G, finishing up on 4th-space E-Flat. Mr. Kunde glides through such moments. It is useful to be reminded that with a full orchestra behind the soloists, all facing the 2,743–seating capacity of Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall – without a microphone / over a two-hour + time frame / with no Intermission — it is the accumulation of such moments that define a great performance.

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TISSOT – Marguerite & Faust In The Garden

Ruxandra Donose, Mezzo-Soprano – marks her SF Symphony debut as “Marguerite”. She is a favorite with the Vienna State Opera appearing in the roles of Carmen, Hänsel, Antigone, and as Pierotto in Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamounix”. Her recordings include Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Mozart’s Requiem In D minor. Previously seen at the SF Opera in the pants-roles of “Nicklausse” (Offenbach’s TALES OF HOFFMANN) and “Sextus” (son of General Pompey in Handel’s JULIUS CAESAR), the lovely Ms. Donose proved a most vulnerable and compelling “Marguerite”. As the object of Faust’s desire and eternal ruin, Ms. Donose’s warm and lyrical mezzo caressed the phrases of the much anticipated aria, “Le Roi de Thulé”. Since her character does not make an entrance until the second hour of the opera, both the sight and sound of Donose’s “Marguerite” prompted a refreshing wave of energy throughout the house. As with composer Charles Gounod’s treatment of the bedazzled ingénue, Berlioz guides our sympathies towards Marguerite in spite of the fact she is having a torrid affair with Faust (on 16th Century demonic viagra) in one room, while across the hall she keeps her mother drugged and unaware with a poisonous concoction bottled by her aging and hell-bent paramour. Two hours later in the “Epilogue” – with her mother dead, her lover en route to the flames, and awaiting her own execution – the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Pacific Boychoir finally took their place alongside the great SF Symphony Chorus and (as the celestial voices of Heaven) beckoned her beguiled soul to the forgiving vapors of eternal bliss.

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WILLARD WHITE, as Mephistophélès – Leave behind your useless philosophy

Bass-Baritone Willard White is the perfect “Mephistophélès”. Jamaican-born and Juilliard-trained, Mr. White is handsomely personable, properly fit, persuasive, potent and playful. His rich and booming voice can take complete command over all the Devils in the Faustian canon. Mr. White’s Wagnerian repertoire includes “Wotan” in both DAS RHEINGOLD and DIE WALKÜRE, and the title role in THE FLYING DUTCHMAN. In 1995 Mr. White was made Commander of the British Empire and then knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2004. His recently released CD, My Way, captivates the soul with beautiful renditions of Deep River, Some Enchanted Evening, and Bess You Is My Woman.

Baritone Christopher Feigum makes an impressive debut as “Brander”. Although the role itself is slotted in the column marked “Thankless”, Berlioz replaces the role of “Valentin” (Marguerite’s brother) with a smart cameo appearance for an up&coming baritone and inserts a respectable drinking-type chanson, “Certain rat, dans une cuisine” (“There once was a rat in a kitchen”). Capturing the role to his advantage, Christopher has used it as his debut with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

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CHRISTOPHER FEIGUM, baritone – Brander

In spite of many a stiffening spine (and a jittery exit by a few of the more feint of heart prior to Marguerite’s de-flowering) the audience rose to its feet as Conductor Dutoit rested his baton. Joining in the well-deserved and rapturous applause was Symphony Chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, Susan McMane – Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Kevin Fox – Founding Director of the Pacific Boychoir.

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SF Girls Chorus and Pacific Boychoir

Together with the San Francisco Symphony, these three separate choral groups can crowd the stage with Grammy nominations and awards. They are collectively the Bright Seraphim of San Francisco.

To order tickets on-line:
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MEPHISTOPHÉLÈS, by Eugene Delacroix – Come, they’re knocking at the door.

Friday, April 27th at 8:00
Saturday, April 28th at 8:00
MATINEE, Sunday, April 29th at 2:00

Check out Seán’s recent interviews and articles:
NORMA SHEARER – Headlines the 12th ANNUAL SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
JEANETTE MacDONALD – First Lady of “San Francisco”
ALTAR BOYZ – In San Francisco
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT – Principal Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
TERRA HAUTE – An Interview with The Stars, John Hutchinson and Elias Escobedo
Agnes de Mille’s RODEO – at SAN FRANCISCO BALLET
COLOR ME KUBRICK – starring John Malkovich

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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on AllExperts.com . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: seanmartinfield@att.net.

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