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Originally published Friday, June 15, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Seattle Symphony to stage Berlioz's hard-to-categorize 'Faust'

Seattle Symphony Orchestra will stage Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" June 21 and 23, 2012, with Ludovic Morlot conducting and starring mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose.

Special to The Seattle Times

CONCERT PREVIEW

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Ludovic Morlot conducts "The Damnation of Faust," 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. June 23, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$110 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).
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Opera? Cantata? "Opéra de concert"?

One of the defining Romantic composers of the 19th century, Hector Berlioz gave "Damnation of Faust" audiences a work that even today defies categorization.

Not that "Faust" isn't heard these days. One of the stars of Seattle Symphony Orchestra's concert version, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose, has performed "Faust's" lone female character, Marguerite, at least 30 times around the world in the past two decades.

While the piece has been occasionally produced as a full-out staged opera (Monty Python's Terry Gilliam directed a well-

received version for the English National Opera a year ago), it is far more often performed as it was in its 1846 premiere in Paris: with an orchestra, four solo voices, a men's chorus and a boys chorus.

That has been the situation for all of Donose's appearances in the role of Marguerite, the innocent young woman who falls in love with Faust, a world-weary scholar who bargains away his soul to Mephistopheles.

"I think it works very well in a concert version," says Donose by phone from Rouen, France. "The orchestration is extremely suggestive, so well-illustrated that the piece doesn't need a lot of staging.

"I perform it trying to convey Marguerite from the inside out. In her first appearance, she sings a very simple, very pure and beautiful song ('Autrefois, un roi de Thulé'). She's hoping and dreaming about love, but she's very young. At the climax, one can hear she's not a girl anymore. She's a woman and has known real love.

"It's interesting to sing both sides of a character who evolves, and it's easier because the music helps me."

Berlioz died before "Faust" caught on with audiences. That 1846 premiere was indifferently received, as were many works by the composer, who was ahead of his time and became a disappointed artist.

In love with literature, Berlioz wrote music directly inspired by favorite poets and playwrights, among them Virgil, Byron, Gautier and, above all, Shakespeare. "The Damnation of Faust" is based on Goethe's dramatic poem "Faust."

Given many scene changes and technical demands as a staged opera, "Faust," the composer knew, would work in the mid-19th century only as a hybrid.

"It's between opera and oratorio," says Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, who will be conducting "Faust" in Benaroya Hall.

"Berlioz's writing is quite challenging, so to be on stage with the orchestra is far more comfortable than to be in the pit. But 'Faust' also works quite well minimalistically, so the power of the music remains in the forefront."

Besides Donose, program vocalists include tenor Richard Leech as Faust (replacing previously scheduled Eric Cutler), bass-baritone David Wilson-Johnson as Mephistopheles, and baritone Charles Robert Stephens as Brander, a student. Joseph Crnko, SSO's associate conductor for choral activities, will lead Men of Vocalpoint! Seattle and Northwest Boychoir.

"This is one of the strongest works by Berlioz," Morlot says.

"I love pieces of his 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Les Troyens.' But 'Faust' is a masterpiece from A to Z."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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