When Hector Berlioz premiered his “Damnation of Faust” in Paris in 1846, he was shocked by the audience’s indifference to the first two performances of his massive work, so much so that he cancelled a third scheduled performance, and actually lost money on the whole thing.
Berlioz might have been slightly ahead of his time, with his tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil as the price of experiencing true love.
Faust has since won a place of major orchestras and opera houses around the world, but only those with the resources to mount the complex and demanding work.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one such entity, and the Damnation of Faust tonight begins a three-performance run at Symphony Hall under the direction of conductor Charles Dutoit, regarded as the greatest interpreter of the work in his generation.
The soloists are Susan Graham, Paul Groves, John Relyea, and David Kravitz.
A massive orchestral force of 100 musicians, the mighty Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Choir of St. Paul’s Harvard Square, a boys’ ensemble, round out the performers.
The Damnation of Faust has been in the BSO’s repertoire since 1934, when Serge Koussevitsky conducted its first complete Boston performances. The BSO recorded the piece twice under the baton of Charles Munch and once with Seiji Ozawa.
Maybe the Parisians of 1846 can be forgiven for their confusion. They had never seen anything like Faust, half opera and half oratorio.
Usually, full-length works are written in a single musical idiom. You can settle into your seat as you listen to the first aria, confident that you’re in for a night of more of the same.
Not so with Faust.
The music covers a vast range of styles, from happy peasants in the countryside to religious themes to a boisterous tavern to gossipy neighbors to army and students to, well, damnation to Hell of Faust’s unlucky spirit.
The Damnation of Faust also contains the famous Hungarian March and the great Pandemonium scene, which begins with the famous ride on two black steeds, one for Mephistopheles and one for Faust.
The trip doesn’t end well for the young lover but certainly gets the audiences’ hearts started.
The story itself might also have been a shocker for the Parisians.
Berlioz adored Goethe’s setting of the Faust legend, having set it to music as his Opus 1 almost 20 years prior to composing the Damnation of Faust.
The piece doesn’t exactly offer a happy ending, however.
Spoiler alert: the noisy, nosy neighbors ruin things for Faust and his beloved Marguerita.
The lovers are parted not only in this life but in the next, as Marguerita, seen off by the innocent voices of the boys’ choir, makes her way to heaven, while the unfortunate Faust is forced to keep his part of the bargain and ends up tortured forever in the depths of Hell.
Maybe he should have tried Tinder instead.
Performances take place tonight at 8, Friday at 1:30, and Saturday at 8.
For further information, www.BSO.org.