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'Faust' finds orchestra in top form

The strings bloom early in The Damnation of Faust - in the title character's opening idyll. The tenor part is lovely. But this is Berlioz, this is about the orchestra.

The strings bloom early in The Damnation of Faust - in the title character's opening idyll. The tenor part is lovely. But this is Berlioz, this is about the orchestra.

Charles Dutoit, whatever frustrations he has expressed off the podium, has led the Philadelphia Orchestra through its most perilous period so far with absolute artistic equanimity. Few other conductors could have presided over Berlioz's multifaceted "dramatic legend in four parts" with as much authority and elegance. Saturday night was the orchestra's last subscription concert of this strange season of bankruptcy and tense labor relations - the last, in fact, until the middle of October. Summer holds the promise of rebirth, or, in an alternative forecast, the threat of organizational immolation. But in Faust, comfort could be taken. The orchestra is all right.

This outing with the Berlioz genre-bender - last performed by the orchestra, with Simon Rattle, just two years ago - was so polished, you might never had detected places where the piece could have easily unraveled. In moments both big and diaphanous, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale - and, in a brief part, the American Boychoir - came across with admirable crispness, power, and, for the most part, homogeneity.

The role of Faust was taken by tenor Paul Groves, and a taxing part it is. A moment of strain was meaningless in the larger context of his evening-long labors (two hours and 15 minutes, no intermission). In the twilight of Scene 9, where Faust sings of his "sweet girl" Marguerite, Groves, through daring vocal shadings, seemed to shrink Verizon Hall to a small chamber, so direct and communicative was his acting. If anyone made the case for this work as opera, it was Groves, whose characterization matured from youthful nervousness to something more complex and beleaguered in the course of the piece.

Marguerite is not a big part, but mezzo Susan Graham was an amber-tone pleasure. Her discrete sections were as songs, completely realized emotionally.

Berlioz as innovator is found here - the use of low cornets seem almost singular in the literature. More startling than the experimentation is how masterly he is in having the orchestra and text speak to each other. Trombones often announce evil, but when Berlioz equates them with Mephistopheles, sung with wonderfully malevolent relish by baritone David Wilson-Johnson, the instrumentation stings. Marguerite is related in personality, the orchestra argues, to the goodness of violas and English horn. Bass-baritone Lucas Harbour was slightly overwhelmed by a busily "wretched and frantic" orchestra in "Brander's Song," but what was heard of his appealing sound was nicely detailed in its relation to the text.

Orchestral text-painting, though, both explicit and subtle, was the evening's chief achievement. Dutoit rendered woodland forests and meadows, their sylphs and gnomes, with a sense of magic and well-being; new tempos snapped into place as if rehearsed for weeks. Violins darted and streaked in the night - "spirits of earth and air." In the orchestral part after Faust's initial song of Marguerite, an exquisite sequence wafts through the ensemble, from violins to violas to cellos, the delicate mood deepening with each statement. Yes, the orchestra is all right.