United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 31 – Berlioz – La Damnation de Faust: Soloists; Trinity Boys Choir; Monteverdi Choir; National Youth Choir of Scotland; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.8.2017. (CC)
Michael Spyres -Faust
Ann Hallenberg – Marguerite
Laurent Naouri – Méphistophélès
Ashley Riches – Brander
Only recently, Sir John Eliot Gardiner gave a memorable late-night Prom of Bach and Schütz (review). Back again, but at a more reasonable hour, he brought his expertise in the music of Berlioz to bear on the massive expanse of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Minus surtitles (unlike Prom 29, Khovanschina review click here), we at least had the full text and translation in the programme booklet. This performance of La Damnation de Faust continues a series of Berlioz performances at the Proms over a number of seasons, including a Symphonie fantastique in 2015 (review), Berlioz’s French version of Weber’s Der Freischütz (as Le Freyschütz: review) and Roméo et Juliette (last year).
Gardiner completely belies his age (74), encouraging his forces to give their all and showing a complete grasp of the score. Berlioz’s masterpiece arguably benefits from a concert presentation, its settings and speed of scene changes making huge demands on stage directors. And the theatre of the imagination is strongly felt, given the vividness of Berlioz’s scoring, something all the more visceral in a period instrument performance such as this (the orchestra included two fine-sounding ophicleides, incidentally). Gardiner found a miraculous palette of orchestral colour from his band, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. This, coupled with his sure sense of structure, enabled the score to emerge as daring and all-encompassing as Berlioz surely intended. The sheer momentum of “The Ride to the Abyss” was undeniably exciting – virtuoso, through and through.
La Damnation de Faust is after all labelled a “dramatic legend”; the several choruses, each expertly trained, certainly added to the sense of drama and, indeed, spectacle, from the beautifully balanced Chorus of Christians (“Quittant du tombeau le séjour funeste”) to the riotous, hilarious fugue on the theme of Brander’s song.
Tenor Michael Spyres took the taxing role of Faust, bringing great delicacy and a superb sense of line to the role. His “Sans regrets j’ai quitté les riantes campagnes” was impeccably smooth, while the ardent delivery of “Ô mon âme tremblante!” carried with it no loss of sweetness of tone (Spyres’ top register is notably sweet). The climactic ecstasy of “Nature immense”, though, was Spyres’ finest moment of the evening, flexible and powerful. Most recently seen in fine form at Covent Garden in Mozart’s Mitridate (review click here), Spyres’ performance here confirmed his status in the operatic world of today. In an interview in the programme booklet, Spyres claims to have sung the role of Faust more often than any living tenor, and that level of rapport shone through his assumption of the part.
Tempting him beyond words was Laurent Naouri’s Méphistophélès. Again, no stranger to his role, Naouri relished every opportunity for leading Faust astray, while his “Song of the Flea” was simply brilliantly done. His “Voici des roses,” too, had a rightness about it; Naouri’s pitching was spot on, his slurs impeccable.
Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg gave us a light, fresh Marguerite; her pairing in the gentle ballad “Un roi de Thulé” with the excellent viola solos of Judith Busbridge was the perfect feminine foil to the brash masculinity of Naouri’s Méphistophélès. More, the duet between Marguerite and Faust (with its cripplingly high tenor writing) revealed how perfectly the soloists’ voices complemented each other.
Ashley Riches, who has impressed so much in the past, was perhaps not on top form. Brander’s song (“Certain rat, dans une cuisine …”) felt misjudged dynamically – on the quiet side – and his diction was the least clear of all the soloists (several of the verses of his song could only have been understood with recourse to the printed text).
The combined choruses worked beautifully together, climaxing perhaps in the “Chorus of Damned Souls and Demons”. The chorus has to encompass students (possibly not so far from demons, arguably), Spirits, drinkers, peasants, Gnomes and Sylphs, soldiers and Will-o’-the-Wisps, and did so by fully throwing themselves into Berlioz’s world.
A triumph. Berlioz in period garb is a revelation.
For more about the BBC Proms click here.