Monday July 30, 2012

LENOX -- For an act and a bit more, Tanglewood's "Damnation of Faust" moved along sluggishly. Then the Mephistopheles of Willard White burst in, energizing human and evil spirits in Berlioz's "dramatic legend."

The performance Saturday night was the closest Tanglewood will come in this post-Levine season to a full-length opera. Charles Dutoit conducted four soloists, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a performance that worked hard to get it right.

"La Damnation de Faust" is sometimes staged as an opera -- there was a silly, video-bombarded Met production a few years ago -- but it was conceived for the concert hall. Tanglewood went through the four acts in concert form without a break: 130 continuous minutes, a long slog for anyone. English supertitles supplemented the French text.

Berlioz channels Goethe, and the veteran Dutoit, a master at this repertoire, channeled Berlioz. He had the assistance of two first-rate soloists.

White, whose booming bass-baritone seemed to come straight out of the abyss, was a sinister Mephistopheles in both voice and gesture. As Marguerite, Susan Graham can no longer pretend to girlish innocence, but her mezzo-soprano, as opulent as ever, poured passion into her two big arias.

The weak link was Paul Groves as Faust. His tenor voice lacked the heft and colors to give full scope to Faust's despair and destruction. His duet with Marguerite was a duel of unequals.

In the minor role of Brander, Christopher Feigum was barely audible.

The BSO reveled in such moments as Faust alone in Marguerite's chamber and the climactic ride to the abyss. At other times in the humid evening, the playing suffered from intonation problems and cloudy textures.

The festival chorus sang lustily as worshipers, devils and other Faustian accomplices. For Marguerite's apotheosis, the PALS Children's Chorus, from Brookline, added angelic tones.

n

Dutoit returned Sunday with Emanuel Ax as soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, a performance distinguished by Ax's mastery of the notes and ability to get to meanings behind them. The big first-movement cadenza was stunning -- but no more so than the shrouded mystery of the largo.

To the delight of the large audience, Ax played Schubert's Impromptu, Opus 142, No. 2, as a solo encore.

Dutoit climaxed the weekend with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in a performance that built excitement, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, to the inevitable meeting with destiny. The BSO was in fine form all afternoon.

n

"Momoprecoce" means "precocious Momus" (the god of revelry, that is) in Portuguese. At 32, Marcelo Lehninger can't be called precocious, but he surely sounded and looked like a big talent Friday night when he led a program that included Villa-Lobos' "Momoprecoce."

Lehninger, a BSO assistant conductor, came to the Berkshires battle-tested, having conducted the orchestra in Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall, sometimes filling in on short notice for James Levine.

For his Tanglewood BSO debut, he looked back to his native land for Villa-Lobos' quirky Brazilian carnival piece.

Also from Brazil: pianist Nelson Freire as soloist in Mozart's Concerto No. 20, K. 466, and "Momoprecoce."

All this was only prelude to the surprise waiting in the evening's finale, the Mussorgsky/Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition." Conducting with precision, authority and a sure sense of pacing, Lehninger put a fresh face on this tired orchestral showpiece. The many illuminating touches culminated in gonging, blazing splendor in the ending. Like Dutoit's Tchaikovsky, a real waker-upper.

Colorful and jumpy, "Momoprecoce" is a loosely strung series of scenes, with the piano -- perhaps like Momus -- skittering in and out of the orchestra's bustle. The 1929 piece was new to the BSO. In this performance, it felt like a lumbering jungle bird that couldn't quite get off the ground.

Freire is a consummate Mozart pianist. He combined suavity and poignancy in the storm-tossed concerto, and Lehninger and the BSO were with him in thought and deed.