La Damnation de Faust – LSO/Gergiev

La Damnation de Faust – Dramatic Legend in four parts

Marguérite – Joyce DiDonato
Faust – Michael Schade
Méphistophélès – Willard White
Brander – Florian Boesch

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 22 September, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco BorggreveMention of the LSO and Berlioz in the same breath inevitably summons up the considerable presence of the orchestra’s previous principal conductor Sir Colin Davis, whose life-long work on Berlioz has been nothing short of revelatory. So ears were sharpened to hear what Valery Gergiev, the LSO’s current conductor and someone for whom Berlioz is not central repertoire, would do with “La Damnation de Faust”.

Even by Berlioz’s standards, this strikingly original hybrid of opera and oratorio (as well as describing it as a Dramatic Legend, he also called it an opéra de concert, and it has always suited the concert hall better than the theatre) achieves moments of transcendent alchemy so powerful that it deflects attention away from the fact that the work can all-too-easily wander into magnificent-folly territory, something confirmed by various stagings of the work.

It needs a conductor who can meet Berlioz’s very French, grandstanding and self-important brand of sentimentality halfway, and also make the familiar showpieces such as the ‘Hungarian March’ and ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ sound fresh and, in the context of the work as a whole, almost shockingly unfamiliar.

Gergiev, with his undeniable charisma and matchless, sometimes forensic attention to detail, rather missed the deranged, floating-world spirit of the piece, where Faust, Marguérite and the Devil himself emerge from Berlioz’s vast orchestral canvas in all their anxious, Byronic glory. Gergiev’s sound, unlike the LSO’s unforgettably transparent, peculiarly Gallic flavour we have become used to where you‘re never sure whether it emanates from the strings upwards, or percolates down from the woodwind, was certainly sumptuous and consistently bright, but it didn’t get the full measure of Berlioz’s feel for contrast and distance, and a hint of patrician reserve to leaven the boundlessly involved energy would have helped the music to breathe.

The soloists were much nearer to Berlioz’s vision. As Marguérite, Joyce DiDonato used her mezzo-to-soprano range to telling effect, the essence of passive, romantic distraction in her King of Thulé aria, ratcheting up her considerable luminous presence even more for a spellbinding ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. Michael Schade caught the spirit of Faust’s grandiloquent anomie, his lyric tenor tirelessly negotiating this formidable role. Just occasionally he didn’t quite nail Faust’s ardour, but he had the Berlioz style to his fingertips. Willard White, replacing the indisposed Thomas Quastoff at very short notice, was a superb Méphistofélès. His performance style has become increasingly more natural and attractive recently, and his bass-baritone combined voluptuous menace with a nimble attack. Florian Boesch was the assured, forthright Brander. Above all, they made you believe in the piece.

The London Symphony Chorus was on glorious and generous form, conjuring up students, yokels and demons with conviction and delivering the amazing concluding apotheosis in fine seraphic style.

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