Faust Performance Overshadowed by Memories of Sir Colin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Le damnation de Faust: Ruxandra Donose (mezzo); Paul Groves (tenor); Benedict Nelson (baritone); Sir Willard White (bass-baritone); New London Children’s Choir; London Symphony Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit. Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.4.2013 (CC)

An intriguing evening, on paper, and a fairly satisfying one in actuality. The Royal Philharmonic is so often thought as London’s “almost” orchestra, a lesser cousin to the Philharmonia, London Symphony and London Philharmonic Orchestras, so it was good to see it showcased in Berlioz’ astonishingly assured and groundbreaking score. The soloists were carefully chosen (more on them anon), and the London Symphony Chorus was its usual assured, superb self.

The performance was dedicated to the memory of that great Berlioz interpreter Sir Colin Davis, who has so recently left us. The evening also sat in the shadow of Davis’ recordings of this piece. I was lucky enough to hear the account preserved on the LSO Live series in the flesh, and it was a defining concert that left my opinion of Berlioz totally reshaped. There, every note, every phrase not only had a rightness about it but was also shot through with genius. The genius was arguably twofold, of course: on the one hand, Berlioz’ one-off, unique imaginative scope; and on the other, Davis’ one-off understanding of the Berliozian soundworld and the structure.

Dutoit’s links to French music extend way back. There is no doubt, either, that he inspires the RPO to their best. He is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the orchestra, and the rapport is obvious. And yet, there was little of the sense of the unfolding of a masterwork about this particular evening. Where Davis’ view of the long paragraph and beyond has never been in doubt, Dutoit does not give in the impression of thinking that far ahead. Details are often lovingly presented, tempi were well considered throughout and dramatic exchanges and gestures worked well on an immediate level (with the exception of a rather lacklustre Ride to the Abyss), but the sweep of the whole was rather lacking. Here, of all pieces, this grand overview is necessary, though. For this is a curious hybrid of a work, an opera with distinct oratorio tendencies.

The chorus plays a major part, and those parts were the real highlights. Splitting the female voices across the extremes of the stage worked a treat (spatial effects are vital to this work, as the offstage instrumentalists also proved). The chorus was expertly prepared (the chorus director is Simon Halsey), but not always exactly with the orchestra, something one must surely attribute to Dutoit. Still, they characterised each chorus with expertise, from the tremendous fugue to the properly climactic final “Pandemonium”.

The soloists were somewhat mixed. Paul Graves was a fair Faust, but lacked the ardent nature this role so requires. The opening “Le vieil huver” found him backed by a frankly nondescript orchestral contribution, and when he exclaimed at the beginning of the work’s second part (Scene IV), “Oh! Je souffre!” (“Oh I suffer”), it was mightily difficult to believe him. Often one just wished for someone capable of a more heroic aspect (“Ô souvenirs! Ô mon ame tremblante!”), an aspect that nearly appeared late in the performance, at “Nature immense”. But not quite, just as his “Merci, doux crépuscule!” (Part III) tended towards the rapturous without actually becoming it. The result was that he was hardly a passionate lover for Marguerite. What a joy it was, though, to welcome the massively experienced Sir Willard White as Méphistophélès. His acting was a joy, and his voice at its best was miraculous, particularly his delivery of velvety legato and a simply beautiful sound in “Voici des roses”. True, there remains some air around the top of his voice where it loses its definition, but the weight of his experience (he is in his sixties) shines through every utterance.

The lovely mezzo Ruxandra Donose took the part of Marguerite. She is believable not only in her lovely aspect, but also in her delivery. Her portrayal was tender and delicate, and impeccably judged right from her very first entry. Like Sir Willard, Donose was properly within her part, and the love exchanges between her and Groves tended to expose the latter’s disconnection with his role. Donose’s range is well developed, too, as she showed in her “D’amour l’ardent flame” (itself prefaced by a superb cor anglais solo courtesy of Leila Ward). Here, Denose’s lower register proved to be firm and reliable, and when she ascended to the heights her voice opened out radiantly.

The role of Brander was taken by Benedict Nelson, who was unfortunately quite weak-voiced and, of all the soloists, the most score-bound.

A mixed event, therefore. To truly shine, for his genius to attain full radiance, Berlioz needs a finer conductor than Dutoit. All credit to the RPO, though. Despite some rather thin upper strings at times, this remains a fine orchestra if not a top ranking one, and the ability to put on performances such as this is to be applauded.

Colin Clarke