The London Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall
Every time I hear Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust I am assailed by the guilty conviction that, despite Berlioz’s overarching ambition and superb orchestration, the versions of the Faust legend by Gounod and Boito are much more successful as dramatic works even if they are clearly musically inferior. Despite these misgivings there are many highpoints in the score and, given the huge demands in staging a work which was conceived as a dramatic cantata rather than an opera, a concert version is perhaps the best option.
This version, conducted by Valery Gergiev, was intended to be part of the Thomas Quasthoff : Die Stimme series. Unfortunately, in the event, Quasthoff was indisposed necessitating a frantic last minute search for another Mephisto. Riding to the rescue from Copenhagen came Willard White who has sung the role all over the world including in the famous Fura del Baus production in Salzburg. He was a worthy replacement and, relishing the sardonic edge to the role, encompassed the Wagnerian moments riding a huge orchestra as well as the hushed beauty of “Voici des Roses”. He received a well deserved ovation at the end of the evening.
Other aspects of the evening were less successful. The role of Faust is written for a tenor type that barely exists nowadays requiring a voice that can rise sweetly to the upper regions, caress long legato lines but also dominate very thick orchestral textures. Unfortunately Michael Schade cannot encompass all those demands. His small (and beautiful) Germanic tenor successfully rode the high lying lines but got lost when more heroic penetration was required. He pushed himself to the limits on “Nature immense” and almost brought it off but you only have to listen to Ben Heppner’s recording of the aria to see what was missing.
It seems churlish to criticise Joyce di Donato but I would have to say that her “Roi de Thulé” solo was too sensuous and vocally coloured for the naive, virginal Marguerite. No such criticism applies to her rendering of the post seduction “D’Amour l’ardente flamme” which vividly portrayed the despair and near madness of the betrayed girl.
Florian Boesch was luxury casting as Brander and made the most of “Le Chanson de Rat”. The LSO chorus, a few tentative entries aside, were in excellent form. Kate Gardner (Soprano section) voiced her solo lines over the final chorus of redemption with confident plangency.
I confess to being disappointed by Gergiev’s interpretation. He seemed to be unwilling to let rip in the big orchestral showpieces such as the Ràkòczi March or the final descent to Hell. At other times when one needed a gossamer texture to allow piano vocal lines to carry he allowed the orchestra to dominate. Despite this the LSO played beautifully and special mention should go to the sublime Cor Anglais solo playing of Christine Pendrill.
- Sebastian Petit