La Damnation de Faust Dramatic Legend
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Donald Maxwell (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir
Tiffin Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 21 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The Damnation of Faust isn’t something you put on if you have a fretting accountant. Berlioz’s extravagance in terms of orchestral forces (two tubas, four harps, et al) is justified, however, in terms of his ability to suggest a vista or sensibility with a single brushstroke – one chord creates a vast terrain in Scene 16, Invocation to Nature, conjured just by violas and second violins – or speak volumes with a particular colour or inflexion. Berlioz’s originality was given full vent here in a glorious performance that found Mark Elder deeply sympathetic to Berlioz’s invention and eliciting a vivid response from both the chorus and orchestra, the LPO on scintillating form.
The solo singing was superb. Donald Maxwell, replacing at short-notice Brindley Sherratt, has little to do as Brander, but he did it with aplomb. The big roles were wonderfully sustained: Paul Groves plangent and heroic as Faust, Alastair Miles nimble, suave and generously ribald as Mephistopheles, and Alice Coote’s Marguerite was both palpitating and wonderfully expressive; their trio that forms Scene 14 was electrifying.
Elder’s control of his forces and the work’s expanse was masterly. Maybe a tad more danger and volatility wouldn’t have gone amiss occasionally, but his building of the piece, his dovetailing of sections and his moving through the odd moment of potential stasis made for engrossing listening. A relish of Berlioz’s ’firefly’ orchestration was always evident, and Elder opened things out by having antiphonal violins; the rear line of double basses was another piece of shrewd aural placement.
Lingering in the mind, then, is the outstanding solo singing and characterisation, a dynamic chorus, the flawless stage-management allowing certain instrumentalists and chorus members to be on- and off-stage at various times – Berlioz had a canny sense of perspective – the viola and cor anglais solos that attend Marguerite’s arias, and an orchestral response from rasping trombones to shrieking piccolos, via nimble and warm strings, that did such a magnificent job in presenting Berlioz in all his innovative glory.
Aside from a sense of wholeness, Elder’s enjoyment of Berlioz’s wit was a joy; a delightful Dance of the Sylphs and his timing of the ’false reprise’ in Mephistopheles’ Serenade, for example. Elder’s trump card, after a thrilling Ride to the Abyss, was to keep the celestial chorus moving along; this final section can seem a bit of a let-down, but Elder avoided any disappointment, the Boys adding yet another timbre (and with another deft piece of choreography for their entrance). This was a stellar achievement.