There are many reasons why it is rare to see an orchestra the size of Tucson’s take on the enormous challenge of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.”
Many of them were on display when the Tucson Symphony Orchestra performed the piece Friday night at Tucson Music Hall before an audience of more than 1,500.
The orchestra should be applauded for its bravery and tenacity. Before Friday night, no audience had seen the piece performed on a Tucson stage.
It was a fine performance, even if it was not perfect. There were times early on when TSO Conductor George Hanson was a step ahead of the soloists, then fell a step behind. During the recitatives, the orchestra drowned out the soloists. Not surprisingly, you could still hear the chorus — 116 wonderful voices strong from the TSO Chorus and the UA’s Arizona Choir — which was performing from risers.
The orchestra provided English translations of Berlioz’s French text on a supertitle above the stage, which helped the audience follow the storyline even if sometimes the text lagged behind the vocalists. But in the second half, the machine wasn’t turned on until halfway through, leaving us to guess what was going on between Marguerite (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano) and Faust (William Burden) when they first meet in her bedroom.
Berlioz composed “The Damnation of Faust” as an oratorio, but at two hours and 15 minutes it plays out like an opera. To keep the audience engaged and to convey the story of Faust bartering his soul to the devil in exchange for a return to his youth, singers have to add some dramatic flair. Burden and Cano, both regulars with the Metropolitan Opera, performed as if they were on a fully decked-out set. Bass-baritone Jordan Bisch in the role of Mephistophélés did as well during the first half of the concert, but in the second half he sang with his eyes glued to the music and his hand cupping his ear as if he was singing the text for the first time. As a result, he had trouble projecting and more often than not we could barely hear him.
Cano’s performance was thrilling — she has a commanding mezzo that soars from midrange to those achingly high notes — but Burden was the star of Friday’s show. From his opening lament of getting old, he showed off a soaring tenor that was alternately sweet and athletic and altogether hypnotic.
“The Damnation of Faust” is a cornerstone of the Second Annual Tucson Desert Song Festival, which wraps up today.
UApresents’ contribution to the song festival was a recital Thursday by rising soprano Christine Goerke of works by Gluck and Poulenc, with some Gershwin and Sondheim mixed in.
Before an audience filling about two-thirds of the University of Arizona’s Crowder Hall, Goerke hit the impossibly high notes of Gluck’s “Divinités du Styx” from “Alceste” with enough force to make the hair stand up on your arms and curl your toes. Her French diction was impeccable and, even if you didn’t understand a word she sang, you appreciated the impact.
To be honest, Goerke could have been singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” over and over again and we would have sat rapt, hanging on her ever word. She has a voice that demands your attention and a warm, personable stage presence that will leave you feeling like you wished you could be her friend.
See the full version of the Goerke review at azstarnet.com/calientetunedin