Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust is a légende dramatique, almost an anti-oratorio of sorts, but it remains theatrical in tone with all of the soloists playing characters who need to be portrayed as such. This had led many people simply to stage the work as if it were an opera, and over the years there have been many successful productions including Terry Gilliam’s impressive offbeat version for English National Opera in 2011.
Nevertheless, the act of staging the piece, while usually achieving the necessary sense of dynamism, risks relegating the role of the orchestra, choir and music in generating it. As a result, this performance from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, felt far more ‘authentic’ as it recognised the work’s inherent dramatic qualities and, through music making of the highest standard, used all of the right tools to bring them out.
Berlioz’ composition was respected without being too revered, as illustrated by the performance of the Rákóczi March, which began with a swing and ended with a punch. By showing astute attention to detail, texture and balance the lines were constantly moved forward until we reached a point at which we felt positively bombarded by an almost ‘raucous’ sound. However, such a sense of chaos was only achieved because of the precision and sheer musicality that underpinned everything.
A similar point could be made in relation to the Drinking Chorus. The men of the Monteverdi Choir may have pushed the idea of portraying drunken singing to its limit, and yet they still produced a marvellous sound because they clearly delineated the vocal lines and maintained the right levels of balance between them. At the other end of the spectrum, we heard the most beautifully tender singing from the pious Christians, and all three choirs involved in the performance – the Monteverdi Choir, Trinity Boys Choir and National Youth Choir of Scotland – played their parts to the full. The ending, in which Marguerite’s soul is saved and she ascends to heaven, was particularly well executed and immensely moving.
The performance also achieved exactly the right sense of theatricality with a few brass sounds and choral offerings being delivered from different parts of the hall, and instrumental soloists and sections sometimes standing to aid the drama and help project their sounds. Mephistopheles first appeared at the top of the stage and descended the steps as he made a beeline for Faust. Brander for his part stood among the Chorus of Drinkers and, with Ashley Riches singing in the chorus for the remainder of the performance, really looked as if he was emerging from the pack to lead the other drunken revellers in song.
In direct contrast, Faust and Marguerite sang their solos at the front of the stage facing outwards, as if emphasising the extent to which they stood as lone individuals, caught up in their own thoughts and feelings. The pair also sang their Part III duet from here, which meant that by the time Mephistopheles also arrived on the scene their ‘confrontation’ felt very immediate as it was delivered so close to the audience.
Michael Spyres revealed his warm, expansive and perfectly shaped tenor to excellent effect as Faust while, as Marguerite, Ann Hallenberg’s mezzo-soprano cut through the air with crystal clarity, even as she gave the impression of producing the most hushed sound imaginable. Laurent Naouri as Mephistopheles revealed excellent expressions and gestures, and the warmth on display in his deep bass-baritone really helped to mark the character out as a dangerous charmer. Ashley Riches with his own strong bass-baritone also went to town on his effective portrayal of Brander, and overall this performance felt as polished as it was entertaining from start to finish.