Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust was written not as an opera but as a légende dramatique, almost an anti-oratorio of sorts. This does not mean that it can’t work well staged (just two years ago Terry Gilliam produced an impressive offbeat production for English National Opera), but it does feel refreshing to experience the work in its purest, intended form.
In the case of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of principal conductor Charles Dutoit, the performance was made particularly intense by being presented with no interval. In the vast interior of the Royal Festival Hall the proceedings were stage managed so effectively that it was hardly obvious that thought had been required at all to create such a smooth operation. The stage was occupied by three of the four soloists throughout with Brander (Benedict Nelson) simply departing the stage through the orchestra at the same opportune moment as Marguerite (Ruxandra Donose) entered from the opposite side. On two occasions the trumpets (and French horn) were played from outside the hall, which again required choreographing as they had to exit the stage specially each time. The excellent New London Children’s Choir was cleverly introduced to the stalls simply by arriving, quietly and yet in keeping with the mood of the music, during the London Symphony Chorus’ preceding lines.
Paul Groves proved vocally flexible as Faust. His performance of ‘Merci, doux crépescule!’ had a brilliant lightness, and his required transition to the countertenor range was very smooth. For the majority of the time, however, he asserted his thick, forceful tenor sound and if he took a little time to warm up at the start he more than compensated for this later on. He also penetrated the veneer of Faust’s character to reveal its distasteful elements, namely the figure’s egotism and sanctimonious attitude.
As Marguerite Ruxandra Donose combined maturity in her voice with a lightness that produced a radiant yet sensitive sound. Benedict Nelson fared well in the small role of Brander, but the standout solo performance came from Sir Willard White as Mephistopheles. Although he had been sitting next to Groves for the preceding twenty minutes, he really gave the impression that he was appearing out of nowhere when he first confronted Faust. The raise of his eyebrow, tilt of his head and swipe of his hand told us all we needed to know about his mischievous, manipulative ways, as well as his understanding of human frailty and how to exploit it. White’s bass-baritone voice was suitably forceful and yet proved capable of softening phrases or creating any effect that was required.
But the real star of the evening was the RPO itself. Dutoit more than re-enforced his reputation as a Berlioz specialist, demonstrating command of rhythmic details and subtleties in balance that, it would seem, brought out to the letter the range of effects that the composer intended. The iconic Rákóczi March presented a wonderful demonstration in his ability to delineate musical lines and, by extension, strands of feeling, and yet thicken the output just enough to generate the necessary visceral thrill, before finally building up an intoxicating head of steam to punch the march home.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.