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October 31, 2008

The Lone Voice That Unites the Chorus

New York Times:

However you wish to label Berlioz’s “Damnation de Faust” — a dramatic cantata, scenes from Goethe’s “Faust,” an opera of the mind, a futuristic musical fantasy or (as Berlioz called it) a “légende dramatique” — the chorus arguably plays the leading role. Through some two hours of music, the chorus appears in many guises: merrymaking townsfolk, drunken students, soldiers marching to war, an Easter congregation in prayer, seductive choirs of airy sylphs and will-o’-the-wisps, foul fiends from hell and angels of heaven. If a stage production were to take it all literally, the comings and goings, let alone the costume changes, would be a director’s nightmare.

Of course Berlioz never intended the work to be staged, but that hasn’t kept opera companies from trying. The Metropolitan Opera, having performed the work in concert, made its first attempt at a staging in 1906 with a starry cast: Geraldine Farrar, Charles Rousselière and Pol Plançon. By all accounts, it was an impressive spectacle.

The experiment has never been repeated until now. On Friday evening the Met unveils a new production conceived by Robert Lepage, featuring Marcello Giordani as Faust, Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès, with James Levine conducting. Overseeing his choral forces from the wings — the star of the show, according to many in the company — will be the Met’s chorus master, Donald Palumbo.

Like every other component of the complex apparatus that keeps the Metropolitan Opera functioning smoothly, the chorus has had its ups and downs over the last 125 years. The consensus now is that the overall choral quality registers very high indeed, as it must for any performance of “La Damnation de Faust” to have maximum impact. Mr. Palumbo, 60, first made his mark on the Met as a guest, when he was engaged to prepare the chorus for the new production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” in the spring of 2006. That September he took the job permanently, and it soon became apparent that the Met chorus, which had been sounding a bit ragged and inconsistent, had improved beyond all recognition.

Frequent Met attendees quickly noted the rise in choral quality in repertory operas, day-to-day performances that can easily lapse into routine without constant vigilance and tweaking. The new tonal luster and technical precision could hardly be missed in a great ensemble piece like Britten’s “Peter Grimes” or Prokofiev’s epic “War and Peace.” Perhaps the ultimate challenge last season, for the chorus as well as Mr. Palumbo, was Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” with its vast expanses of abstract repetitive choral patterns to be digested, memorized and sung in Sanskrit.

“We had never encountered anything quite like it before,” Mr. Palumbo said. “There was a lot of resistance to Glass’s idiom at first, and the chorus had a hard time making a connection with the language. But after several weeks of plugging away, everything suddenly fell into place. Within a span of just one or two rehearsals, the learning curve took off, and we went from struggling to almost complete comprehension. When that happened, despite all the physical demands the piece makes, it became an intellectual joy for the chorus to sing, and all the performances came off on a real high.” Continue reading

Posted by acapnews at October 31, 2008 8:56 PM

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