sat 18/11/2017

La Damnation de Faust, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - infernal dynamite | reviews, news & interviews

La Damnation de Faust, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - infernal dynamite

La Damnation de Faust, LSO, Rattle, Barbican review - infernal dynamite

Adrenaline levels still running high for the second instalment of #ThisisRattle

A great beast of an orchestra: Simon Rattle conducts the LSO, the London Symphony Chorus and children of Tiffin School All images © Doug Peters/PA Wire

For his monster concerts in 1840s Paris, Berlioz took pride in assembling and marshalling a "great beast of an orchestra". At the Barbican on Sunday night, the LSO filled the stage and fitted the bill. Their thoroughbred tradition of Berlioz performance, long nurtured by the late Sir Colin Davis, looks set fair to be renewed by Sir Simon Rattle. Just as they had done last week in a remarkable survey of modern English music to open his tenure as music director, they gave him everything in La Damnation de Faust.

Cramped acoustic be damned: there was playing here of unabashed violence, backed up by a contribution of thrilling exuberance from the London Symphony Chorus, who appeared to seize their moment like the prisoners in Fidelio, after years of being sidelined and overlooked by Valery Gergiev’s programming.

Not that Rattle’s Berlioz is in hock to the memory of Davis. He turns the screw more tightly. The preludial material of Part 1 simply flew by, and the awkwardly pseudo-operatic construction of Part 2 was rounded and buffed and polished into shape where Sir John Eliot Gardiner, at his recent Prom, had relished the heterogenous character of this unclassifiable "dramatic legend". With his Faust got up as Berlioz and his Marguerite channelling the watery spirit of Ophelia, Gardiner presented an evening packed full of ideas; in as much as the piece ever will, this Faust made sense as the French translation of a German story, written on a hinge turning from Beethoven 9 to Tristan und Isolde.Karen Cargill and Bryan Hymel in La Damnation de Faust at the BarbicanReplacing Gerald Finley at short notice, Christopher Purves made an urbane devil of the world, pitched somewhere between Alberich and Swiss Tony, score-bound for his Song of the Flea and Serenade but resonantly insinuating a power finally unleashed with Faust’s Damnation. The finest singing of the night came from Karen Cargill (pictured above with Bryan Hymel), embodying Marguerite not as a virginal ingénue but an eager lover. From the heartbeat pulse of her King of Thule ballad and the glowing core of her mezzo she drew a portrait of ardent distraction traced at every step by Alexander Nemtsov’s viola – and how lovely it was to hear in their last note a Wagnerian fusion of voice and instrument.

From the profound solitude of Marguerite’s scene to open Part 4 came to mind a pitiful letter written a couple of years before Faust by Berlioz’s son Louis to his aunt, terrified by his father’s absence and his mother’s slide into alcoholic incapacity: "Every day she waits for a letter which never comes." Cargil made it into the still point around which the story turns, while preparing us for the work’s lyric climax in Faust’s great invocation of "Nature immense". This found Hymel in something approaching the heroic stature of his Enée for the Royal Opera’s Trojans after some pinched and strained moments earlier on.

Cargill was not the only one visibly affected by the evening’s closing coup de théâtre, as rank upon rank of children from the Tiffin School gradually filled the floor of the stalls to play their part in Berlioz’s sublimely extended epilogue, which on this occasion was not a bar too long. I would gladly return for the repeat performance on Tuesday just to hear the last five minutes again.

@PeterQuantrill

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