Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists,
Richmond Symphony Chorus,
Virginia Symphony Chorus members
Steven Smith conducting
May 17, Richmond CenterStage

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” is a drama meant to be read, not staged – imagined rather than seen. That being the case, Hector Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust,” an opera meant to be performed without costumes and sets, could be the most faithful of the many musical adaptations of Goethe’s masterwork.

The Richmond Symphony’s concert production, concluding the orchestra’s 2013-14 season, is as dramatically potent as any staged opera seen and heard here in recent years.

As he did two years ago with another Goethe-derived unstaged drama, Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” conductor Steven Smith shows a real gift for delivering a theatrical punch without theatrical trappings, by turning the orchestra and Richmond Symphony Chorus – this time, supplemented with singers from the Virginia Symphony Chorus – into tonal scene-painters and actors.

With a lot of help from Berlioz, of course: No composer of the 19th century, not even Wagner, was as expert in spinning story lines and creating mood and atmosphere in orchestrations, and few were Berlioz’s equal in fleshing out character and emotion in vocal lines.

Berlioz’s mastery poses formidable challenges to performers. Instrumentalists must be so fully engaged that the composer’s volatile expressive and sound effects seem to erupt spontaneously. Singers must be prepared to emote without inhibition, and often to extend their voices into extremes of volume and register – the tenor portraying Faust has to climb to countertenor elevation; the female choristers are called upon to shriek, then to join a heavenly choir a few moments later.

In the first of two weekend performances, tenor Vale Rideout proved to be a stellar Faust, tirelessly producing the stentorian yet lyrical vocal lines that Berlioz inherited from the French baroque and enhanced with romantic expressiveness. Soprano Elizabeth Bishop, as Faust’s beloved, Marguerite, was comparably expressive, if a bit plummier vocally.

Bass Andrew Gangestad started out voicing little of the insinuating quality one wants to hear in Mephistophele, but turned up the heat and intensity markedly as the character turned more overtly devilish in the later sections of the work. Bass Jason Hardy reveled in the cameo role of Brender, the coarse barroom tale-spinner in Part 2.

The chorus, prepared by Richmond’s Erin R. Freeman and Hampton Roads’ Robert Shoup, was consistently characterful and dramatically charged. The male forces sounded somewhat recessed as a chorus of rowdy boozers, but grew in volume and forcefulness in portraying demons. The women’s projection and ensemble were excellent throughout.

The orchestra, with enhanced wind, brass and percussion sections, produced torrents of sound when appropriate (as in the familiar “Rákóczy March” and the “Pandemonium” scene), but also played subtler sections, such as “Dance of the Sylphides” and “Wills-o-the-Wisp Minuet,” with gratifying deftness. Standout instrumental solos were principal violist Molly Sharp’s duet with Bishop in Marguerite’s “King of the Thule,” principal oboist Gustav Highstein’s accompaniment of the Faust-Marguerite duet and English horn player Grace Shryock’s accompaniment in the Romance.

With so many performers on the stage in this production, the string sections are pushed out from under the theater’s proscenium arch. That costs them some heft and tonal brilliance, and noticeably reduces the projection of lower-string sound.

“The Damnation of Faust,” sung in French with English captions, repeats at 3 p.m. May 18 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$76. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);