Since its founding in 1958, The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras or BYSO, self-described as “an independent organization in residence at Boston University College of Fine Arts,” has become a magnet each year for hundreds of youngsters eager to make classical music together. And this is their 15th year of performing at least one opera annually. In this past weekend’s imaginative rendition of the challenging “dramatic legend,” Damnation of Faust, by Hector Berlioz, Music Director and Conductor Federico Cortese and Stage Director Joshua Major proved again that charismatic coaching of talented youth begets inspired performances reaching far beyond expectations. Add to that, the excellent and sought-after professional soloists—Arnold Livingston Geis as Faust, Ethan Vincent as Méphistophélès, Avery Amereau as Marguerite and David McFerrin as Brander as well as the BYSO Opera Chorus and the youth who make up Voices Boston—and you have a memorable event.
Berlioz became enthralled with Goethe’s Faust as a young man and created Les Huit Scenes de Faust, which later formed the basis of Damnation de Faust. Challenging to stage, as it runs from private meditative scenes to rowdy youth, militia, farmers, nosy neighbors and a descent to Hell, the opera has most often been presented as a concert version, with variable staging and effect. Faust flopped in its first concert production in 1846 but later became a big hit in its first full opera performance 47 years later. BYSO’s hybrid of the concert version plus substantial staging transported the capacity audience, filled not only with parents, grandparents, and sibs old enough to understand the plot, but also with friends, community and cognoscenti hoping to experience this huge opera.
Faust is a very old story—around for half a millennium, at least. There are but four developed characters in this opera, what’s more, one of them is a rowdy student, Brander, who just has one great aria about a rat, delivered in McFerrin’s sonorous baritone with the ebullience of youth. Customary with BYSO operas, the soloists are professionals, happy to be there. The BYSO symphony orchestra is large, even too large for this massive Berlioz opera, so other than a few young musicians, half played Parts 1 and 2 and the other Parts 3 and 4—and happily—both groups achieved excellent quality.
Major came up with surprisingly imaginative blocking, and he lit the beautiful wood of Sanders, with myriad changing hues to express the emotions of various scenes, evincing just the right touch. And the audience got to experience Hungary, Germany and Switzerland in two hours! To enjoy this music drama, one may buy into a plot and libretto that condensed and crystalized Goethe’s Faust into, well, a cultured soap opera, packed with the obvious twists and turns induced by Méphistophélès, angels and bar denizens, or one can let the French just wash over as sound.
In Part 1, spring on the plains of Hungary, Geis as Faust personified the unfulfilled and, frankly, nerdy philosopher lamenting his limited life, full of ennui—and ripe for something better as a vernal day unfurled. Faust’s misery, despite spring and rebirth of pleasures, sounded rich and clear, and all too soon the familiar Rákóczi March signaled war and change.
Part 2 began as deeply despondent Faust, having decamped to his study in northern Germany, is about to drink poison, hears an Easter song that restores his childhood faith and trust. What might have been a reawakening and quiet story stops there—because… Vincent as Méphistophélès shows up with his magnificent baritone to entice Faust, first by going to a rowdy tavern, in which Faust is disgusted, but the audience charmed by Brander’s version of the rat song and then the Méphistophélès’ “one-up-ya” flea song. The Devil, seeing that Faust is less than charmed, promises him love and then conjures Marguerite, setting the trajectory to soul-selling and fatal miscarriage of love. While some listeners may have struggled to get into the story, the music beguiled, as Berlioz masterfully enticed the listeners. And Vincent continued to charm the audience with his cynical seduction. The excellent BYSO chorus, under Chorus Master Bill Cutter, created coherence and cohesion as they morphed from townsfolk to devils and angels.
At intermission the orchestra members changed out, as planned, amidst audience murmurings about how professional they sounded.
As expected for Part 3, Faust and Marguerite became entwined, seductively yet chastely. Avery Amereau’s colorful contralto embodied Marguerite’s sensual character with longing, brief fulfillment and more longing after. In Part 4, things go badly for both Faust and Marguerite, but not for the audience. The arias are well known, and the artists executed them lyrically and convincingly. And the BYSO chorus moved well and sang on a similarly high plain. The trip into Hell with Méphistophélès and Faust and the orchestral brimstone was appropriately hair raising. And the VOICES Boston (formerly PALS Children’s Chorus) under Dan Ryan sounded (and looked) angelic as they sang from the balcony with strong but heartrendingly pure voices.
Berlioz fused symphony, oratorio, opera and song in Damnation, re-defining opera and orchestra. With such a large work, one might have expected that typical “young person” bravado would have blotted out all nuance, blasting sound. Remarkably, after some initial exuberance at Geis’s first entrance, the work seemed, instead, through Cortese, to inspire the players to controlled exhilaration.
The afternoon testified to the value of immersing talented youth in great music and artistry without any dumbing down or lowered expectations. Overall, concertgoers without a performing relative seemed at least as excited about the performance as I was to hear my grandson Marcus playing in the orchestra’s bass section.