United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2017  – Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust: Edinburgh Festival Chorus (dir. Christoper Bell), NYCoS National Girls Choir (dir. Christopher Bell), Gentlemen of the Hallé Choir (dir. Matthew Hamilton), Hallé, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Usher Hall, 20.8.2017. (SRT)
Michèle Losier – Marguerite
Michael Spyres – Faust
Laurent Naouri – Méphistophélès
David Soar – Brander
Parts of this Faust are a known quantity because Michael Spyres and Laurent Naouri did it at the Proms earlier this month. However, the focus of the two performances was entirely different. In London the talk was all about John Eliot Gardiner’s use of period instruments and the fresh textures they provided. Here, the focus was on the modern-instrument Hallé at their dazzling best, playing out of their skins for Mark Elder and sounding sensational in the process.
The Hallé haven’t been back to the Edinburgh International Festival since their stupendous Gerontius in 2009, but their quality has not diminished in the interim. The style of the performance was apparent right from that very first viola line, evoking Faust’s solitude on the plains of Hungary, which dripped with vibrato and throbbed with emotion. This was to be a performance of full-blooded Romanticism, and sounded all the better for it. Elder knows this score inside out, and he guided us through it like a master storyteller. It helped that he was supported by a knockout orchestral team, with a big brass back row (including an ophicleide) and a beautifully varied wind choir, as well as a rich string sound. Solos sounded great, especially the cor anglais during Marguerite’s Romance, and Berlioz’s colourful effects sparkled afresh, like the piccolos in the dance of the Will’-o’-the-Wisps, or the muted strings in the Dance of the Sylphs. The highlight for me was the passage that takes us from Auerbach’s cellar to the Elbe Meadows in Part Two, demonstrating both Elder’s skill as a master of transition (his great Wagnerian experience coming in useful here) and the gorgeously rich orchestral tone as the grimy pub melted away and was replace with a landscape of delicate magic.
If the orchestra were hugely memorable then so, too, was the work of the choruses, particularly the Festival Chorus who, supplemented by the Gentlemen of the Hallé Choir, were totally convincing either as penitent sinners or as demons of hell. They seemed to be enjoying themselves particularly during the tavern scene (who can blame them?), and sounded good in the opening Ronde de Paysans. NYCoS (the National Youth Choir of Scotland) played a major role in Gardiner’s performance, but here only the girls played a role at the very end of Marguerite’s apotheosis, though they made a big difference by lightening the texture.
Michael Spyres knows the part through and through, and makes a totally convincing Faust. His is predominantly a light voice, but he darkened it considerably for the Invocation to Nature, making that the climax of the evening, and managing the punishing tessitura during his duet with Marguerite. Michèle Losier sang Marguerite with beauty and pathos, but not a lot else, and it was ultimately an accurate but slightly anonymous portrayal. Not so Laurent Naouri, who hammed it up brilliantly as Méphistophélès, acting the part with Gallic nonchalance and injecting a twinge of irony into his vocal role. David Soar had less time to ham it up, but took full advantage of his moment in the spotlight.
This set of music dramas in the Usher Hall has been, for me, the most surprisingly successful strand of the EIF’s music programme this year. This is now the sixth (and final) one that I’ve heard, and they have all been richly engaging, full of drama and bursting with theatricality. From Walküre and Peter Grimes though to the Monteverdi Trilogy, each one has been (mostly) sung from memory and fully acted, drawing the audience in and providing a totally satisfying theatrical experience. The supertitles have helped, too, and this is a rich seam that the festival would be well advised to mine further in the future. Some complain that staged opera has taken a hit in recent years, but when the “concert performances” are like this, it sometimes makes me wonder whether we need a staging at all.
The 2017 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 28th August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.