An initial performance of Roméo et Juliette and a repeat of La Damnation de Faust marked the latest week of ‘Gergiev’s Berlioz’ at the Barbican. The ‘dramatic symphony’ on Shakespeare’s play is a difficult work to pull off. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia barely managed it at the Royal Festival Hall in September, and Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony orchestra only just managed to better them.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of energy and high drama. The LSO played with their usual skill and flair, and Gergiev drove them hard in the pacier passages. But the slower parts of the symphony were realised without much feeling or intimacy. The ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo, for example, should be quicksilver light and witty, but under Gergiev it flitted along a little too blandly.
The London Symphony Chorus responded well to the demands of the score, with some fine characterisation in the crowd scenes. The young voices of students from the Guildhall School of Music added further vitality. The mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists have fairly small roles in the work. Olga Borodina sang her strophes with strength and some warmth, then walked off the stage. At least tenor Kenneth Tarver had the good manners to stay after lyrically singing his Mercutio-inspired scherzetto. Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin remained slouched in his chair until his final delivery as Friar Laurence. At least he was worth the wait, with a deep-voiced and commanding recitative and aria.
Four days after the initial performance of La Damnation de Faust Gergiev should have had time to iron out any awkward moments. On the whole, he seems to have achieved this, although matters of interpretation prevented this from being a great performance rather than a very good one. Again, the LSO’s playing was vivid and vibrant. The well-known ‘Hungarian March’, ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ and ‘Will-o’-the-Wisp Minuet’ were all played with brio, delicacy and wit, and the ‘Ride to the Abyss’ in Part IV was particularly exhilarating. Yet somehow Berlioz’s ‘Dramatic Legend’ lacked cohesion.
The mixed bag of soloists didn’t help. In the title role, tenor Michael Spyres rose to the challenge with operatic verve. His opening invocation to nature and the ensuing duets with Marguerite were marked by a beautiful yearning tone and sureness in the upper register. Olga Borodina’s Marguerite was less effective – a bit too matronly and dispassionate. Likewise, Mirco Palazzi was miscast. His was a lightweight bass, without the diabolical darkness required. The surtitle system seemed to have malfunctioned on this occasion, so the audience had no access to the libretto (none was printed in the programme). This would have helped, because the diction of the soloists and chorus was not always clear. But if characterisations of soldiers, peasants and angels were not always tightly drawn, at least the London Symphony Chorus served Damnation well with impassioned and rousing singing.
The performance of Roméo et Juliette will be repeated on Wednesday 13 November.
You can read our interview with Michael Spyres here.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.