BBC Proms reviews

Prom 70: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Berlioz @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 September 2007

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

On the day Luciano Pavarotti died, Nicholas Kenyon prefaced the evening prom with a short speech dedicating the performance to the memory of the late great tenor.

A Berlioz work may not have been the most appropriate tribute but having as conductor the singer’s frequent collaborator, James Levine, Music Director of the New York Met as well as tonight’s orchestra, was certainly fortuitous.

This was a welcome and rare appearance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, ending a short European tour, during which they have performed La damnation de Faust several times. Considering that the orchestra’s association with this piece stretches all the way back to the legendary Serge Koussevitzky in the 30s, it was disappointing that there was something missing from the performance.

Whether the work is “a kind of opera”, as Berlioz termed it at one point, an oratorio, or the “Dramatic Legend” he finally settled on, it is a highly charged piece and, surprisingly for a conductor so experienced in opera, Levine underplayed the dramatic qualities.

Sicilian tenor, Marcello Giordani was an elegant choice for the part of Faust, with something of the finesse of Nicolai Gedda about him and, despite some fudged top notes in the love scene, he gave a refined account of Berlioz’ all too human protagonist.

Unfortunately, the singers were awkwardly recessed behind the bulk of the conductor and his not insubstantial podium. Veteran bass-baritone, world-renowned in the role of Méphistophélés, José Van Dam failed to break through the barrier, a big disappointment, although the gorgeous mezzo of Yvonne Naef floated effortlessly over the top of the Maestro’s bouffant.

If there was an overall lack of cohesion, there were highlights, most coming after the interval. Giordani’s “Merci, doux crépuscule!” was excellent and both of Naef’s big numbers “Roi de Thulé” and “D’amour l’ardente flamme” were glorious.

The massive Tanglewood Festival Chorus, without scores, switched fluently between French, Latin and demonic devil-speak and during the divine finale, when Marguerite’s soul is gently drawn to Heaven by Celestial Spirits, local colour was added by Finchley Children’s Music Group.

Despite what must have been one of the warmest evenings in the hall this year, and with the gaping jaws of hell turning up the heat towards the end, this was a performance that didn’t quite ignite. Hopefully, tomorrow night’s programme of Bartok, Brahms and Carter will see Levine and his Boston forces on better form.

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Prom 70: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Berlioz @ Royal Albert Hall, London