La Damnation de Faust – Dramatic Legend, Op.24 [sung in French]
Faust – Michael Spyres
Méphistophélès – Mirco Palazzi
Brander – Florian Boesch
Marguerite – Olga Borodina
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 November, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The LSO’s current Berlioz bash with Valery Gergiev seems to be a manic schedule. Four programmes each played twice in the Barbican Hall and with several concerts abroad (in Essen, Brno, St Polten and two in Paris); 13 gigs in 18 days. More housekeeping: on this evening there was no further sign of Peter Tatchell on the platform, although Gay Rights protesters were outside the Barbican Centre still aiming at Gergiev and his support of President Putin. And the platform itself was full to bursting (the London Symphony Chorus at full strength, four harps…) and looked cramped, enough indeed for Michael Spyres to be a bit of cert to fall into the first couple of rows of audience. (He didn’t.) And if we were meant to have English surtitles – the apparatus was in place – then the technology didn’t work, save for when a couple of green-coloured words flashed up early into Part Three.
This was the second outing for Faust (from panorama to pandemonium), which like its predecessor four days earlier started at 7 o’clock (well, 11 minutes later, in fact), which is unusual for this work, but with an interval that overran and some sluggish tempos from Gergiev it became an unexpectedly long evening, two-and-three-quarter hours, Berlioz’s “dramatic legend” dragging at times. The mention of an interval is now significant given Charles Dutoit did without one in his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra account of Faust earlier this year (also with the London Symphony Chorus), and it made a real difference, Parts II & III melded into a continuous 75-minute whole. The LSO’s interval, quite a normal intermission in most performances, now seemed redundant.
Yet this particular version, even for the second time of asking, occasionally found the LSO a little uncertain of what its maestro wanted, although most of the playing was typically virtuoso and vivid; and ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ was given the most gracious of renditions, given with the utmost refinement. That the performance as a whole was only about five minutes longer than the norm is neither here nor there … but it sounded a bit of a haul. Gergiev’s priority seemed to be clarity and articulacy, and although there were many musical rewards there was a feeling of sluggishness that stifled drama and description, and that Berlioz was somewhat tamed, his eccentricity smoothed out – rather like Gergiev being Rimsky-Korsakov and his revising of Mussorgsky, and some of the combined solo and choral episodes of Part III were more Verdian than being typical of the Frenchman. Martial and macabre episodes could also be underplayed.
There were thrills, though, some passages really caught fire as an incandescent blaze, and the ‘Ride to the Abyss’ (Part IV) was excitingly hard-driven, Fabien Thouand’s wailing oboe cutting through, but the final ‘heavenly’ chorus was severely compromised by not having a children’s chorus; a new timbre at this point is much to be desired in terms of denouement and is surely what Berlioz intended.
Of the singers, Spyres sang (from memory) with operatic relish if a little stridently at times; he caught well Faust’s loneliness and rapport with nature, and his love for Marguerite, herself undertaken by Olga Borodina, radiant and deep but not always sustaining a long line. Mirco Palazzi (replacing Ildar Abdrazakov, if long enough ago for the programme-book to be updated) was not the darkest or most manipulating Méphistophélès, lacking black domination, and sometimes without the last degree of vocal agility, not least in his pizzicato-accompanied ‘Sérénade’. Florian Boesch as Brander had little to do, but he was imposing and nonchalant doing it.
It was the London Symphony Chorus that in many ways stole the show with focussed and unanimous singing that survived every microscopic detail that Gergiev (and Simon Halsey, chorus director) extracted from it. Distinctions between soldiers, students, peasants and others may not have been that obvious, but the preparation and delivery was top class.
If not the most cohesive and “dramatic” performance overall, there were things of wonder at times, some of Spyres’s raptness for example, not least when accompanied by three trombones and a solo cornet, or when the performance really took off, an ardour and a foot-tapping vitality; nor will Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais contribution or Edward Vanderspar’s on viola be easily forgotten (both contributing to Borodina’s solos).
Listening to The Damnation of Faust has been described as eating whole a big box of chocolates containing every conceivable centre; it didn’t seem quite like this here, although it was very musical and considered, but with the peculiarities that make Berlioz himself undersold … for all that, there was something strangely compelling to behold.