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."
And many of them were on display when the Tucson Symphony Orchestra performed the piece Friday night at Tucson Music Hall.
The orchestra should be applauded for its bravery and tenacity. Before Friday night, no Tucson audience had seen the piece performed on a Tucson stage.
It was a fine performance, even if it wasn't 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 on risers.
English surtitles translated Berlioz's French text, but sometimes the text lagged behind the vocalists; in the second half, the machine wasn't turned on until halfway through, leaving us to guess what was going on in the bedroom when Marguerite (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano) and Faust (William Burden) first meet.
Berlioz wrote the piece as an oratorio, but it plays out like an opera, which places a burden on the soloists to act out their roles.
Burden and Cano were superb, convincing us that theirs was a love destined for a tragic ending. Bass-baritone Jordan Bisch in the role of Mephistophélés was convincingly evil and conniving in the first half, but in the second half he sang with his eyes glued to the music and his hand cupping his ear as if he was looking at the text for the first time and was trying to find the right balance to his voice. As a result, he had trouble projecting and his voice more often than not was lost.
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. You couldn't take your eyes off of him when he sang his opening lament of getting old. And you wanted to bargain with the devil on his behalf to spare him when he sacrificed his soul to save Marguerite's.
"The Damnation of Faust" is a cornerstone of the Second Annual Tucson Desert Song Festival, which wraps up today.