THE FRENCH COMPOSER Berlioz was a Romantic, but not your shrinking violet kind. He sent his youthful, early "Eight Scenes of Faust" to Goethe, the creator of the great German poem and his inspiration. The attempt to curry favor with the aging master poet failed. A friend advised Goethe the Berlioz score was "a fragment of an abortion resulting from a hideous incest." The correspondence was doomed. Berlioz shelved the project.
But not for good. Seventeen years later in 1846 a more experienced Berlioz used fragments and new material for "The Damnation of Faust," called it a "dramatic legend" but not an opera, and after a bad start sailed off with a masterpiece of Romantic flourish. Often last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, that very same work sure sounded and felt like an opera, even if it didn't look like one. Whatever it was, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and choruses under David Zinman made it work. The devil (Mephistopheles not Zinman) rarely makes people so happy.
At the end, after almost two and a half hours, the augmented and vibrant BSO, its chorus and the Children's Chorus of Maryland marshaled 275 musicians in a grand climax, one detail of which remains a surprise for tonight's 8:15 p.m. audience. "Damnation" was the first of a little Faust triptych Zinman has planned this year. It will be followed by Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" Dec. 1 and Mahler's Eighth June 13-14, both inspired by the Faust legend.
The tenor Richard Leech sang Faust clearly, brightly and earnestly, especially in his solos announcing spring, his love for Marguerite and his ode to nature. A few times he was overrun by the orchestra or the chorus. Belgian bass Jules Bastin, singing with rich tone and dramatic fire in his debut here, seemed at first almost grandfatherly but was soon cynical and evil in manipulating Faust. Bastin's rubber face, gestures and shouts in particular exploited the dramatic possibilities.
Leech and Bastin duets were melodious, as was a later powerful trio with Claudine Carlson. More interaction than usual between soloists in the concert form was welcome. Kevin Short, bass-baritone, hiccuped nicely as a drunken Brander and sang a strong aria in the Auerbach Cellar scene but unfortunately his part was too brief.
Mezzo-soprano Carlson, as the frightened, innocent Marguerite, sang two of the longest and most riveting arias, "The King of Thule" and "The burning flame of Love." She made the most of them, sang them with absolute conviction and carried in her melancholy tones the deepest emotional force of the evening's soloists. Also notable were a viola solo by Richard Field, an English horn solo by Keith Kummer and angelic notes from on high in the person of soprano JoAnne Dolan. The BSO played the Berlioz Romantic extremes vigorously.
The BSO chorus, directed by Edward Polochick, offered its own thrills here and there. For example, when the drunken students rolled their heads and sang "Amen" in successive, imitative fugue notes or when the gnomes and sylphs sang to put Faust to sleep.