tue 28/06/2022

The Damnation of Faust, Gergiev, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

The Damnation of Faust, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

The Damnation of Faust, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

Gergiev's Faustian Adventure

The Damnation of Faust is so chock-full of special effects that you half expect a list of technical advisors in place of the single name Hector Berlioz. But it is just he – wizard of his imaginings – who continues to surprise and even shock no matter how many times you hear the piece - and with Valery Gergiev heightening its neurotic nature all the way to pandemonium there wasn’t a whole lot more you could have asked of this performance, except a better, more complex and interesting Faust than Michael Schade gave us and a clearer beat from Gergiev.

The issue of the beat affected the LSO Chorus more than it did the orchestra, who played with seductive power throughout and are more accustomed to reading past Gergiev’s fluttering gestures than their choral counterparts. Which is not to say that the chorus – especially the overworked men – weren’t impressive in all their guises from jolly villagers to boozy revellers and raucous devils, just that you wouldn’t be hearing any ragged edges under Sir Colin Davis. Still, the operatic reach of the choral singing is what really counts and it culminated here in a howl so bloodcurdling from the normally quite demure ladies of the LSO Chorus that you really did wonder if they’d seen something in the hall that you hadn’t – apart, that is, from Marguerite’s imminent fall from grace.

But what a score this is, and how the LSO made capital of its hallucinatory colours from the off-kilter syncopations of the Hungarian March with its sprightly pizzicati and flaring trombones through the darting flames of Mephistopheles’ spirits of fire, invoked with great rhythmic brilliance by the LSO woodwinds, to the “Ride to the Abyss” itself where the weight of two bass tubas and seismic percussion moved more than the air around the front stalls. But Gergiev always has a good nose for theatrical atmosphere, too, and as slumber overcame us and Berlioz brought on the sylphs towards the end of part two we were indeed momentarily transported to the wooded banks of the Elbe.

Faust’s dream of love happens in that moment, and would that Michael Schade could have made it more beguiling. Schade’s singing is so much of one colour, so lacking in beauty and fascination, that you wonder why Mephistopheles should have desired his soul in the first place. Nor does he really have the ease of ascent into those treacherous high Cs. In his love duet with the marvellous and voluptuous Joyce DiDonato’s Marguerite his ragged falsetto was hardly suggestive of rapturous infatuation.

Marguerite has two marvellous set-pieces of her own, of course, and Berlioz in his genius plumbs their melancholy with poignant obbligatos for viola and cor anglais (superbly taken by Christine Pendrill). DiDonato sang both with tremulous intensity and richly upholstered tone. The old ballad of “The King of Thule” was especially moving, its final sigh gently transcending the written note.

But the evening’s greatest pleasure was a last-minute one with Sir Willard White replacing the indisposed Thomas Quasthoff at only a few hours' notice. White seems to grow in stature with the years and here he had only to leap bolt upright at his entrance to ensure that attention would be paid. And it was. Mephistopheles’ knowing twinkle was never so devilishly conveyed and the sense of his supernatural detachment belied the concert environment. You would expect the devil to have charisma as well as the best tunes – but White had a sense of humour, too, ensuring that his eyes scanned the hall as he delivered the words: “I thought I was somewhere holy.”

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