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La Damnation de Faust (LSO/Gergiev)

A damned shame: the spirit of Colin Davis fails to materialise as the London Symphony Orchestra brings Berlioz back to the Barbican

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This week, unlike last, there were no onstage protests as Russian maestro Valery Gergiev resumed his Berlioz cycle. It was a pity in a way, because the Putin-supporting conductor's reading of Berlioz's La Damnation of Faust sorely needed a shot of drama.

Valery Gergiev
Like Roméo et Juliette, which the London Symphony Orchestra has also programmed, La Damnation falls into Berlioz's neither-one-thing-nor-another category. The composer chose not to call it an opera (although Terry Gilliam made a heroic fist of staging it as one for ENO a couple of years back) but, rather, a ‘dramatic legend'. Cut it how you will, it needs a sense of theatre. How mystifying, then, that the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre had so little to offer.

The shining light in a drab evening was Michael Spyres, who single-handedly saved it from two-star ignominy. Having played Faust at the Vlaamse Opera last season the American tenor was able to sing without a score and interpret his character with complete security while all around him floundered. It was like a camera trick in a black-and-white movie where one lone character is picked out in glorious Technicolor. He had the voice for the part, too: even the cruel high notes rang true in ‘Merci, doux crépuscule!', and the cry of "Seigneur! Seigneur!" opened out gloriously. And in ‘Nature immense', Faust's extended aria in Part Four and an enormous challenge at the end of a long evening, Spyres still sounded refulgent.

Berlioz may have written La Damnation de Faust for the concert hall, but that – as the late Sir Colin Davis emphatically demonstrated in the same Barbican Hall a few years back – doesn't absolve its interpreters from conveying the drama. Mindful then of Thumper's message in Bambi ("If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nuttin' at all"), I'll be brief about the rest.

Méphistophélès should dominate the action; not so here. Mirco Palazzi barely engaged with the character and his only obvious connection with Spyres was to proffer him a bottle of water when he couldn't reach his own. Memories of the extraordinary Christopher Purves at ENO did the young Italian bass no favours; here, Faust walked all over him.

Florian Boesch sang the student Brander's ‘rat song' with his customary musicality but little personality, while the fine Russian mezzo Olga Borodina, though in radiant voice during her self-contained ballad ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé', seemed otherwise rather detached from the drama.

While Valery Gergiev held the LSO together well enough, little excitement was generated from the cramped Barbican platform. La Damnation contains some of Berlioz's most visceral music (his chromatic chordal progressions can startle even today) yet only a suavely Tchaikovskian ‘Menuet des follets' transcended the ordinary.

Most disappointing of all was the London Symphony Chorus, normally a tower of strength. Their succession of soldiers, students, peasants, gnomes, sylphs, demons and 'the damned' were under-characterised and apparently under-rehearsed. In Part Two the male drinkers seemed to frequent a very sober tavern and would have been more at home at a game of skittles than an orgy, while in Part Four the ladies of the Chorus (to the mirth of some sitting behind me) diligently checked their copies before delivering a single, hellbound scream.